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The most terrifying opening scenes in horror films

Usually, the best horror film will have a slow burn. Modern classics like Get OutYou're Next, and The Descent earn their scares with gradually escalating tension, leading the audience carefully and deliberately into the dark, making their eventual payoffs all the more shocking. There's an undeniable craft to opening a fright flick with a semblance of normalcy, before slowly but surely lowering the viewer into the depths where the light is no longer visible, and there is only the nightmare. 

These, however, are not those films. These are the ones that grab the viewer by the throat — in some cases, before the opening credits have even rolled — and let them know in the space of a few short minutes, and in no uncertain terms, what they've just signed up for. Many of them are among the scariest movies ever made, and every one of them boasts opening sequences that are certain to have the faint of heart nervously eyeing the exits. These are the most terrifying opening scenes ever put to film. 

It Follows

It Follows was the breakout horror film hit of 2014, and everything about the film seems designed to keep the viewer permanently off-guard. Its deliberately vague production design, with elements cribbed from different time periods from the '50s to the modern day, was meant to leave the audience unsure of exactly when this film was supposed to be taking place, lending the proceedings a dreamlike quality. Its methodical pace mirrored that of its "monster," a painstakingly slow yet utterly relentless pursuer who could appear as anyone and could only be shaken off by passing the curse to another (through sex, of course). The film might have left the consequences of allowing "it" to finally catch up to you similarly vague, but writer/director David Robert Mitchell chose instead to spell them out with terrible clarity within its first three minutes.

In an opening that could serve as a terrifying vignette on its own, we follow an obviously traumatized young woman as she flees down a street to the beach — and something else is following as well. We don't know what it is yet, but we know she's scared to death, and by the end of the scene, we know it was for good reason. Some viewers may have been put off by the movie's ambiguous ending, but there was certainly nothing ambiguous about its opening, a 180-second master class in nerve-jangling terror.

Split

M. Night Shyamalan was heralded as the second coming of Alfred Hitchcock after his sterling 1999 hit The Sixth Sense, but his filmography in the intervening years has been notoriously uneven. The Visit from 2015 was welcomed by many fans and critics as something of a return to form for Shyamalan, but he was saving his true resurgence for 2016's Split, a wildly effective psychological thriller anchored by a career-high performance from James McAvoy as Kevin Crumb, a disturbed man with 23 different personalities — plus an additional one only known, quite rightfully, as the Beast.

The opening scene illustrates every teen's worst nightmare, as a trip to the mall for three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) turns suddenly and decisively perilous. The girls wait obliviously in the car for their accompanying parental figure to finish stowing packages in the trunk — but he won't be joining them, and their day takes a turn for the terrifying as Crumb nonchalantly takes his place in the driver's seat. Joy's face registers slowly dawning panic as she realizes what's happening, while the demeanor of McAvoy's Crumb goes from a ho-hum day at the office to sheer menace in the blink of an eye — the first ominous note of his masterful horror film performance.

Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

The Friday the 13th series isn't exactly known so much for getting under the skin of viewers as it is for exposing everything under the skin of any teenager unfortunate enough to cross the machete-wielding path of Jason Voorhees, the wordlessly determined embodiment of violent doom (or, in the case of the first film, his equally determined and vengeful mother). Later installments leaned hard into funhouse territory, relying just as much on morbid humor as gory shocks — but not in the case of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, a supremely underrated slasher which announces its intention to screw with audiences from the start.

Corey Feldman reprises his role as young Tommy Jarvis in the dream sequence that opens the film. On a dark, stormy night, Jarvis finds himself observing Jason's grave as two would-be grave robbers are digging it up. It doesn't go well, and Feldman's reactions, as he witnesses Jason rising once again to butcher the hapless crooks, sell Tommy's sheer panic and terror and set the stage for the most psychological of all the Friday the 13th films. Much has been made of the fact that Part V is the only installment to feature a copycat killer, which many viewers regarded as a copout. But its ridiculous body count, inventive kills and unnerving tone have earned it a place in the hearts of die-hard fans, and its brilliant opening is by far the best of the series.

IT (2017)

Stephen King's IT is widely regarded as being among the finest of his standalone novels, and its 1990 TV miniseries adaptation — featuring the great Tim Curry as the timeless, child-eating monster who lures in its prey by adopting the guise of Pennywise, the Dancing Clown — scared the pants off of many a '90s child while avoiding the novel's more graphic moments. The opening scene, in which young George Denbrough encounters Pennywise while looking for his paper boat in a storm drain, is familiar to many — which makes the version offered by Andres Muschietti's 2017 theatrical adaptation all the more impressive, as that familiarity robs the scene of exactly none of its near-unbearable tension.

That this is so comes down to one simple factor: Bill Skarsgard's borderline-feral, nerve-shreddingly terrifying performance as Pennywise. Much of the film's pre-release speculation centered on whether Skarsgard would be able to live up to Curry's classic turn, but that question was answered definitively within seconds of the appearance of those predatory eyes, floating in the darkness of the storm drain. Skarsgard famously unnerved everyone on set, Muschietti included, and it's easy to see why — plus, unlike the 1990 version, IT had no qualms about graphically portraying George's shockingly violent fate. It's an opening that would have been all too easy for Muschietti to stumble over — but instead, the home-run sequence established a vicious tone for one of the best horror films of the last decade.

Halloween

The late, beloved film critic Roger Ebert didn't mince words in his four-star review of John Carpenter's 1978 masterpiece: "I'd like to be clear about this," he said, "If you don't want to have a really terrifying experience, don't see Halloween." It's the film that gave birth to a thousand tropes, one that took merciless advantage of lighting, composition and foregrounds to scare the hell out of horror film audiences unaccustomed to being in the hands of a master filmmaker. It was a film unlike anything fans of fright flicks had ever seen — and that includes its virtuoso opening sequence, which put the viewer squarely in the shoes of a killer.

The voyeuristic camera work leads us through the halls of a suburban home, from the point of view of an as-yet unknown party who dons a clown mask, grabs a huge kitchen knife, and uses it to brutally murder a teenage girl in the midst of her preparations for Halloween night. The first-person point of view is only broken at the scene's end, when the girl's parents arrive home to find the murderer standing on their front lawn — revealed to be the victim's six-year old brother, Michael Myers, who would return home fifteen years later to finish what he started. Carpenter would go on to a long and distinguished career of scaring the living daylights out of audiences, which anyone brave enough to sit through the first six minutes of his breakout hit could have easily predicted.

The Stepfather (1987)

The Stepfather from 1987 boasted a novel premise: a straight-laced family man is actually a violent psychopath, only showing his true colors when his current family "disappoints" him; he then systematically slaughters them before assuming a new identity, moving on to another town, and finding a new family. Despite this, the film was a relatively by-the-numbers thriller that might have been consigned to the bargain bin of forgotten '80s horror films if not for one element — veteran character actor Terry O'Quinn, who blessed an otherwise workmanlike film with the performance of his career. 

The film's opening brilliantly, and wordlessly, establishes its premise. We first see O'Quinn's character — calling himself Harry Morrison, although not for long — diligently scrubbing blood from his hands; it's obvious something terrible has happened, but Morrison doesn't appear to be too upset. He packs a few belongings, then strolls out of the house — past a scene of unimaginable carnage, a series of butchered bodies that we can tell from the framed photos on the walls are the remains of his family. Whistling a jaunty tune, he boards a ferry to go begin his new life as Jerry Blake — and when he marries into a new family, we are all too aware of the horrors that await once the "disappointments" begin. O'Quinn's performance made The Stepfather a cult classic, but he turned down the chance to reprise the role in the 2009 remake — which was, perhaps not coincidentally, panned.

Cube

Cube, released in 1997, operated with a mind-bending sci-fi premise that revealed itself gradually after a stunningly effective cold open. A man awakens to find himself in a… well, cube-shaped room with several apparent points of exit, completely unaware of how he got there or what he is supposed to do. After finding all exits to be identical, if differently color-themed, he chooses… poorly.

The brilliance of Cube's opening is in how it instantly imparts to the audience the disorientation and determination of this man whom we've just met — and then savagely (and literally) slices their expectations to ribbons. Viewers are left to parse out the predicament of the characters they'll come to meet right along with them, clues which the film methodically doles out along with shocking bursts of truly insane gore — but none of them blindside us quite so hard as the first, which not only boldly asserts the the stakes of whatever game these poor people are playing, but serves as one of the absolute bloodiest opening moments in all of film.

The Hitcher (1986)

A young man picks up a hitchhiker by the side of the highway, in the middle of nowhere, on a dark and stormy night (another one of those). "My mother told me never to do this," he says, but the man is soaked to the bone, and at first he seems grateful for the lift, if not exactly forthcoming with answers to the young man's casual questions. But the encounter with the hitchhiker turns slowly more threatening; he claims to have run out of gas, but then says he doesn't need gas. Then, it turns out the car he had been stranded by wasn't even actually his. It belonged to the guy who picked him up last, but that unfortunate motorist won't be going anywhere anytime soon, because the hitchhiker "cut off his legs… and his arms… and his head. And," he says, "I'm gonna do the same to you."

Young Jim Halsey, played by C. Thomas Howell, will survive this encounter due to sheer luck, but the opening scene of The Hitcher introduces Rutger Hauer's John Ryder as an agent of pure mayhem, a man with no purpose other than random violence, and Hauer's performance makes his previous turn as psychotic replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner look positively endearing by comparison. It's a film that tests the limits of its audience with brutally shocking gore, the wanton murder of women and children, and a truly disturbing ending — but, in all fairness, its sadistic bent is more than obvious from this first scene.

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Twilight Zone: The Movie from 1983 was noticeably short on true scares, save for director George Miller's harrowing reworking of the classic episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," with John Lithgow ably filling the lead role occupied by William Shatner in the original. But its brief, pre-credits opening sequence has become the stuff of legend, and it added a phrase to the pop culture lexicon that still has the power to make our skin crawl: "You wanna see something really scary?"

Comedians Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks put the audience at ease as motorists on a lonely road at night, enjoying easy banter as they reminisce over old TV shows — including, of course, The Twilight Zone. But when Brooks tries to rattle Aykroyd by turning off his headlights, Aykroyd ups the ante by insisting that Brooks pull over so that he can show him something even scarier — and boy, does he ever. The scene's end serves up one of the most merciless jump scares in film history. The sickening crunching and cracking of bones can be heard as the camera pans up to the sky, while original series regular Burgess Meredith begins to intone the familiar opening narration. The film's four main segments are rather hit-and-miss, but if you indeed wanna see something really scary, look no further than this brilliant opening scene.

Evil Dead (2013)

Horror film fans had plenty of reason to be wary of 2013's soft reboot of Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead. Recent attempts at reinventing the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises had fallen right on their faces, and recreating the tone of Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead would be difficult, if not impossible. But those fans had no way of knowing at the time that the project was in the hands of a major, as-yet unheralded talent: writer/director Fede Alvarez, who made no attempt to rehash what had worked in the previous series, but brought a wickedly inventive tone all his own instead.

The film opens with a terrified young woman being hunted down and captured in the woods by her own family, who appear to be religious fanatics bent on burning her alive. But as her father fumbles with the matches, the woman's tearful pleas take a hard left turn — and it suddenly becomes obvious that the only terrible mistake this family made was not getting that fire started a lot sooner. With one stunningly effective sequence, Alvarez let it be known that this Evil Dead would not be playing its premise for laughs, nor would it be pulling any punches. The best horror film of 2013 only disappointed fans in one respect — its lack of a sequel. Alvarez has been teasing us with its possibility ever since.

Scream

Wes Craven's 1996 deconstruction of the horror genre, Scream started a trend of self-awareness in fright flicks that continues to this day — but for all its willingness to point out and send up the genre's tropes, it's easy to forget what a virtuoso piece of filmmaking its opening sequence is. Drew Barrymore appears as a young woman named Casey, who receives what she thinks is a prank phone call from an unidentified party. As the guy quizzes her about horror movies, the tone of the call goes from playful to sinister to outright terrifying as Casey slowly realizes that this is no joke.

The scene plays with the well-worn trope of the mysterious caller who knows way more about the person on the receiving end of the call than he should — yet at the same time, Craven sets his audience up for a hell of a shock by putting Barrymore, the most famous actor in his cast, in the role of the doomed girl. It's an absolute master class in playing on audience expectations and building tension, and the final shot — as Casey's parents return home to a gruesome scene — is as disturbing as anything our imaginations could have conjured during the scene's buildup. Scream's influence has towered over horror for the last couple of decades, but it may not have lingered quite as long in the popular imagination without this merciless attention-grabber of an opening. 

Jaws

Much has been written about the prototypical summer blockbuster Jaws, a film that was either going to make or break the career of its 26-year old director, Steven Spielberg. Virtually everything that could have gone wrong with the production did, up to and including the stubborn refusal of the mechanical sharks built for the film to cooperate — but the technical problems ended up enhancing the film in ways nobody could have foreseen, as Spielberg wisely chose to keep his toothy menace offscreen whenever possible and let John Williams' iconic score signify its presence.

Nowhere is this technique's effectiveness more evident than in the film's harrowing opening scene, as a young swimmer named Chrissy goes for the last moonlit skinny dip she'll ever take. For the actual attack, Spielberg and his crew employed an underwater system of ropes to jerk actress Susan Backlinie back and forth, and all we can see are her terrified reactions, which she completely sells. Jaws is a film that set the template for the summer tentpole picture and has been ripped off literally more times than can be counted — but its opening retains all of its power over four decades later, and as you may be aware, its young director went on to have a pretty good career.

Hatchet

When horror started to get bogged down in bloodless PG-13 affairs and found-footage flicks in the mid-'00s, writer/director Adam Green decided something needed to be done about it. That something was 2007's Hatchet, an unabashed throwback to '80s slasher films featuring some of the most jaw-dropping practical gore effects seen since that era. The story is simple: a group of Mardi Gras revelers become stranded during a haunted swamp tour, where they're hunted down and dispatched by a vengeful undead monster. The film's effectiveness is in its execution — no pun intended — and the opening sets its tone perfectly.

A father-and-son pair of drunk hillbillies (the former played by none other than Robert Englund, sans Freddy Krueger makeup) are hunting for a huge alligator in the swamp at night. When the son disembarks from their canoe to relieve himself, the father falls silent — and the son quickly discovers that there are a lot worse things than alligators in this swamp. The scene keeps the audience off-balance by establishing a quirky, somewhat comic tone before veering hard left into shockingly explicit gore, and it loudly announces the filmmakers' intention to challenge the ability of even the most hardened horror fan to keep watching. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Freddy Krueger is so iconic that sometimes we can forget just how scary he is. Throughout the sequels to 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy becomes more and more verbose, prone to dropping ridiculous one-liners before dispatching his victims — but as originally conceived by horror maestro Wes Craven, there wasn't one damn thing funny about Freddy, and the disorienting opening of the original film establishes its villain as an otherworldly, terrifying bogeyman. 

A young girl named Tina is in the middle of a nightmare, even if she (and we) don't know it yet. She's being pursued through a dark, noisy boiler room by a mysterious figure, one who appears to have knives for fingers… and we only get a decent look at him right before Tina wakes up screaming. Removed from the context of the increasingly cheesy series to follow, the dialogue-free scene is a perfect (and perfectly vague) introduction to the predator stalking Elm Street's children. It also cues the audience to expect frequent flights from reality, brilliantly establishing in just a few minutes that what we're seeing might not necessarily be real. The Elm Street series may have ended up providing laughs and scares in equal measure, but the original film had no intention other than to scare you silly, and its opening scene is truly a jolt of pure nightmare fuel.

Drag Me to Hell

After making three Spider-Man films in five years and failing to get a fourth off the ground, Sam Raimi was ready for a bit of a palate cleanser. This meant a triumphant return to gonzo horror with Drag Me to Hell, the story of a loan officer named Christine (Alison Lohman) who runs afoul of an elderly woman by denying her an extension on her mortgage. Christine becomes the victim of a curse in which she'll be tormented by a demon for three days, at the end of which the foul spirit will — wait for it — drag her to hell. Christine is skeptical of her situation at first, but we're not, because we've seen the film's opening.

A young boy is brought to a medium by his parents after he steals a necklace from an old woman. The boy is convinced something evil is following him, and his parents think the medium can help. The boy is right; the parents are decidedly not. All of the old, Evil Dead-esque Raimi calling cards make their return: the off-kilter angles, the eye-popping closeups, the crazily kinetic camera work. But the scene also horrifyingly establishes that the film's unseen villain is one without mercy, as the boy's frantic pleas fail to head off his fate. Drag Me to Hell is imbued throughout with Raimi's signature dark comic touch, but its opening skimps on the comedy in favor of a heaping helping of darkness. 

The Ring

2002's The Ring is the film that launched a hundred J-horror reboots, but this shouldn't be held against it. It's probably the very best horror film of its decade, even if its premise — a videotape that kills you seven days after you watch it — sounds supremely silly in elevator pitch form. Fortunately, the filmmakers realized this, and gave us an extended opening sequence which acknowledges it while masterfully toying with the expectations of the audience. 

Teenagers Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella) entertain themselves during a sleepover with the story of the cursed tape, which Katie claims to have seen. As she realizes it was seven days ago, she begins to choke — but she's just pulling Becca's leg, and they have a good laugh. Then, things start to get a little weird with the unexplained appearance of dirty water on the floor, a TV tuned to static won't turn off, Becca vanishes… and it becomes apparent that Katie really has seen the tape, and her seven days are up. The final shot before Katie screams in terror — of a television showing a black-and-white image of an old, decrepit well — somehow manages to be profoundly disturbing, even if we don't know why just yet. And if you watch very closely as the camera zooms in on Katie's screaming face, you can see it start to change — foreshadowing the film's most notorious jump scare. 

Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship is, by all reasonable measures, not a very good film. Despite sporting a killer cast including Gabriel Byrne, Juliana Marguiles and Karl Urban, it suffered from problems in the writing, plotting and pacing departments; famed critic Richard Roeper bluntly called it "a dumb movie with dumb characters doing dumb things," which pretty much sums it up. But improbably, its opening scene has repeatedly been called among the greatest in the history of its genre, and with good reason — it's a doozy.

As the opening credits roll, we see a fancy ball taking place on the deck of a luxury ocean liner in the '60s; the scene is shot in soft focus, with sweeping big band music playing, and even the credits are rendered in a suitably elegant and classy font. Lovers stare dreamily into each others' eyes, a young girl gets a dance with the captain, and everything seems to be going smashingly — until an unseen assailant unspools a thin steel cable at a high rate of speed, causing it to snap and whip across the ballroom. For a sickeningly long moment, nobody is sure what happened… and then things start to fall apart, quite literally. It's the jarring juxtaposition of dreamy elegance with unthinkable carnage which makes the scene so brutally effective, and — the rest of the film notwithstanding — deserving of its place among the ranks of the greatest openings in all of horror.