Top 10 Horror Film Beginnings

Horror film beginnings are perhaps more crucial in the genre than any other. It is the director’s chance to set the tone, to take hold of his or her audience and not let go. A poor beginning could destroy the entire film.

We’ve looked at film endings so it makes sense to give film beginnings the chance to shine in the Top 10 Films limelight. And perhaps more important than in any other genre are horror film beginnings.

The start of a film is just as crucial as the ending, if not more so. In the first twenty minutes of a film the director has to introduce you to the story and his way of telling it, the principle characters and the key plot conundrum that is to be driven by the narrative. If these elements fall down or fail to hold the interest of the audience, the film’s success is in doubt.

Horror film beginnings are crucial to the possible success or failure of a horror movie…

The horror film is a great example of top notch beginnings. The way in which a horror film tries to get under your skin is governed by its opening which tries to set up its scares. A opening that doesn’t make you jump or fails to get those hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention is one which is going to lose its audience’s interest.

10. Suspiria (Argento, 1977)

What happens: American girl Suzy Bannion arrives in Munich to attend the world-renowned dance academy in Freiburg.

It is the way director Dario Argento uses the soundstage along with some terrific visuals that makes the opening to Suspiria so exciting.

9. IT (Wallace, 1990)

What happens: A child rides her bike into her yard. Her mother asks her to come in but before she does she notices a clown hiding behind the washing line. Curious, the child investigates…

Tommy Lee Wallace’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s brilliant book might not be up to the standards of the source novel but it has some terrific moments. Not least this chilling opening. Tim Curry is superb as villain Pennywise.

8. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)

What happens: John Carpenter skulks around a house with his camera before killing a blonde girl who is combing her hair…something like that.

John Carpenter makes brilliant use of the point of view shot to put us inside the villain. What is perhaps most chilling is that the reveal shows that the killed is actually a child.

7. Candyman (Rose, 1992)

What happens: Never, ever, say Candyman in the mirror five times. At the beginning of Candyman a young girl decides to take on the challenge – very bad idea.

Candyman is one of the best horror films of the 1990s. It features a great villain as played by the uncompromising Tony Todd, and is directed with authenticity by British filmmaker Bernard Rose.

6. The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986)

What happens: A teenager driving from Chicago to San Diego picks up the hitchhiker from hell.

The Hitcher is a film that grabs you from minute one and never stops. In large part the film’s success is down to Rutger Hauer’s genuinely chilling portrayal of a drifter calling himself Jack Ryder. Ryder enjoys murdering anyone and everyone who comes across his path including cops, children, and most importantly, our protagonist Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell).

The opening is suitably tense as teenager Jim is driving along the middle-of-nowhere-roads in Texas on his way to California. He’s feeling a little tired so, having spotted a hitchhiker, he decides to stop the car and give the stranger a ride. Of course, everyone in the audience is thinking: What are you doing picking up a completely stranger? It is made even more baffling by the thunderous weather, heavy rain, remote location and pitch black night sky, but then this is a movie! Of course, Hauer’s Jack Ryder isn’t your usual hitchhiker. It quickly becomes obvious that Ryder isn’t a nice chap. When he puts a knife to Jim’s face and asks him about eyes bursting, blood spurting and wanting to die, we know this is one hitchhiker to avoid. Can Jim find a way to escape or is this film only ten minutes long? You’ll have to watch it to find out!

5. An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981)

What happens: Two American men, travelling through northern England, are attacked on the moors by a werewolf.

When I refer to the opening of An American Werewolf In London, I’m talking about the first twenty minutes which are hauntingly and gorily irresistible to any horror film fan. The short stay in the local pub for David and Jack is awkward and funny, macabre and unsettling. It brilliantly sets up their ill advised trek across barren moorland and their ultimate demise at the hands of a rabid werewolf.

4. Scream (Craven, 1996)

What happens: A girl has to answer horror film questions correctly in order to save her boyfriend’s life.

The opening of Scream is a little piece of genius from Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson and A Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven. This postmodern slasher film reinvigorated a genre long ago lost to straight-to-video low-grade z-movies. Its referential humour and gleeful play on convention is perfectly set-up in the film’s fantastic opening sequence.

3. Twilight Zone: The Movie (Landis, Spielberg, Dante, Miller, 1983)

What happens: You know that nice friendly comedian Dan Aykroyd? Well it turns out he’s a zombie!

Another film that begins with a guy driving along a desolate road at night. What does that tell you? Twilight Zone: The Movie has four directors who each bring to life four stories loosely cut and pasted together. It is perhaps most notorious for the tragic accident that occurred while John Landis was filming his segment entitled Time Out when a helicopter lost control causing the deaths of three actors including two children.

2. When A Stranger Calls (Walton, 1979)

What happens: Jill Johnson is just your average teenage babysitter, working for an average suburban couple when they go out for a meal. But, while the children are safely tucked up in bed upstairs, she starts to receive some strange phone calls.

When A Stranger Calls, which was remade in 2006 by Simon West (a film I actually prefer), has one of the finest twists in film which surprisingly appears at the beginning rather than the end. The film is notable ironically because Walton’s effort is so forgettable but its opening sequence features one of the best horror film beginnings and thus its a worthy entry on this list.

1. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

What happens: Chrissie Watkins undresses and goes for a swim…then there’s screaming…lots and lots of screaming…

When it comes to the greatest horror film beginnings, there can surely only be one. The beauty of Steven Spielberg’s opening to Jaws is that he has the audience in the palm of his hand, our nerves jangling to the director’s whim. It is undoubtedly one of cinema’s most memorable opening sequences.

Written and compiled by Dan Stephens.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Dave Reply

    Great list Dan,IT still gives me nightmares to this day

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    Jaina Reply

    Amazing list. As someone who loves their horror, this list just makes me want to go home and watch them all over.

    The opening to Scream was epic. I remember how excited everyone was about Drew Barrymore being cast and then killing her in the opening scene? Brilliant!

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    Rodney Reply

    I had a feeling you’d sneak a jaws reference in here somewhere dan…. Great list.. I think scream had the best opening of the last twenty years on this genre, so I’m glad to see it make the list.

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    mark Reply

    The opening of Dawn of the Dead (Romero version) surely deserves a mention … TV reporter Gaylen Ross awakens in a studio from what looks like a brief slumber to the nightmare that is being televised around her (Argento’s music adds a lot here)

    Then it gets better, with the assault on the zombie apartment building – apparently this was the point when Janet Maslin from the NY Times walked out, complaining not about the splatter violence, but the scene’s perceived racism.

    Other great horror movie openings:
    (1) Richard Burton with his “weary heart” walking up those steps in South America (Rio???) to perform an exorcist in Exorcist II – The Heretic (arguably the film’s best moment);

    (2) The fly-in shot to the Phoenix hotel room in Psycho – nothing really to do with horror per se, but a great beginning all the same … even van Sandt’s rehash of it some 40 years later wasn’t too bad.

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    DEZMOND Reply

    believe it or not, I still can’t say candyman five times in front of the mirror, I swear I can’t 🙂

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    Evan Crean Reply

    Sadly haven’t seen a bunch of these, since horror isn’t my favorite genre, but Jaws and IT hold well-deserved spots on this list.

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    Pete Reply

    So glad to see Halloween and Scream in there. Scream’s probably my favourite. Never cared so much when a character died in a slasher flick my whole life! So tense, so witty and pretty damn sad too. And it makes you feel like a real horror fan for knowing the answer to the killer Friday 13th question!

    Not a horror but the opening to Irreversible is unspeakably horrific in so many ways.

    Great list, still need to see IT! Heard so much about it!

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    Louise Reply

    I’ve always liked the beginning of Scream. It defied everything we were expecting when the biggest star in the film was gutted. I always jump when I’m at home alone at night and the phone rings.

    Oh, and I can’t say Candyman 5 times. I get to 4 and then think why risk it…

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    Adam from Reply

    Sweet list Dan, I still have nightmares about that crazy clown from IT. “we all float down here”

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    Castor Reply

    Nice list. I feel like the Scream opening has been diluted by all the times it’s been made, remade and spoofed over the years. But indeed, pretty freaking awesome the first couple times you see it.

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    Dirtywithclass Reply

    Yesterday i got around to watching Candyman…and it is still effective today imo

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    Scott Reply

    See I was reading this thinking that American Werewolf has to be at number one… but JAWS is easily the best. Brilliant work

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    Aidy Reply

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–horror movies as we have come to realize, has lost the original draw or finesse as these films. these films evolved into toxic remakes. Not all of them, you know of the ones I speak of. Great list and summation!

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    Dan Reply

    @Dave: It is a shame IT doesn’t have a better final third because I think it is a great story and the film/television serial tells it really well – especially the 1950s part of the story. And, Tim Curry is brilliant as Pennywise.

    @Jaina: Yeah, Scream really did redefine the way we looked at horror films despite it essentially being based on a series of homages.

    @Rodney: Scream does have one of the best openings. It is great that it could work as a standalone short as well!

    @Mark: Great choices Mark. I like that you mention The Exorcist II – generally panned by critics but there a few bits and pieces I like about the film. Overall though it is a poor follow-up to the original and Part III is way better.

    @Dezzy: Neither can I! 🙂

    @Evan: IT is certainly one of those characters that gets under the skin of most people.

    @Pete: That’s so true. Of course I’ve seen it a few times now but it is great knowing the answers to the killer’s questions. So you’re so right about being sad about a character dying in a slasher film. Although I was pretty sad to see Sarah Michelle Geller bite the bullet in I Know What You Did Last Summer.

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    Alyson Reply

    Love this list, Dan! Horror is not my favorite genera, so if I’m going to watch a good horror movie, that first scene really has to hook me. Putting Jaws at number one just feels right.

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    Paragraph Film Reviews Reply

    I’d probably add in 28 weeks later with the chase down to the river by about 200 zombies. When the camera pans up to reveal the numbers… truly gut-wrenching.

    Scream’s my favourite from the list because it was just so fresh and unusual from the dross at the time.

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    mark Reply

    Mr Paragraph Film Reviews reminded me of yet another beauty – the opening of 28 Days Later when the animal rights activists unleash the zombie virus by freeing the infected monkeys. Great scene.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Another great list. I really hope they do a faithful film adaptation of IT, which, imo is the scariest and best book ever written.

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