The 18 Scariest Horror Movie Opening Scenes, Ranked

04.01.15 2 years ago

Some horror movies go with a “slow-build” approach, and some go for the jugular right off the bat. The unexpected horror hit “It Follows” definitely falls into the latter category, as you can see in the opening scene embedded below (narrated by director David Robert Mitchell).

Are you sufficiently unnerved? Good! That's what we're going for here. As the indie horror hit prepares to expand into over 1,600 theaters this weekend, below I've ranked 18 of the most iconic/frightening horror openings of all time from least to most scary. The result is a completely objective list that will remain set in stone for all eternity.

Are you ready? Can you handle it? Countdown starts now…

18. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

“They're coming to get you, Barbara.” While I have no doubt that contemporary audiences covered their eyes in fright during the opening sequence of Romero's original “Night of the Living Dead,” to modern eyes the scene is more spooky than scary. Still, Romero's atmosphere-building remains peerless.

17. “Scream” (1996)

I've gotta be honest: the “Scream” movies never really scared me. The Ghostface mask is too silly to be truly frightening, and the self-aware tone keeps us from ever being frightened on a deeper level. The opening scene of the original film is justly iconic and certainly as scary as the franchise ever got, but in the scheme of horror movie opening sequences it's actually pretty mild.

16. “Day of the Dead” (1985)

This one earns a spot on the list thanks to a single, perfectly-timed jump scare that's bound to catch you off guard no matter how many times you've seen it. The brief scene isn't sustained enough to be ranked higher, but…well, just watch. I won't spoil it for you.

15. “Carrie” (1976)

One of the most terrifying bullying scenarios ever put to film opens Brian De Palma's 1976 Stephen King adaptation, which sees the mousy title character played by Sissy Spacek pelted with tampons in the locker room shower. De Palma's camera lingers on Carrie's horror as she becomes frantic at the sight of her first (belated) period, her pale naked body exposed and vulnerable. The scene is viscerally powerful, and there's a jarring quality to the way De Palma abruptly transitions from steamy slo-mo to shrieky abject terror. It's deeply unsettling and yet still only made it to No. 15. Tough competition! (Note: the abbreviated edit below doesn't do the scene justice.)

14. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974)

The “this is a true story” conceit has been run into the ground by now, but those body-ripping sound effects over a black screen? Chilling and horrifying. The slow pan out from the shriveled-up corpses in the cemetery? Bizarre and unsettling. Still, compared to the rest of the film it's a walk in the park. “Texas Chainsaw” may be the scariest horror film of all time, but its opening sequence is only the fourteenth scariest by my calculations.

13. “Martyrs” (2008)

Hot tip: if you're easily disturbed, stay far, far away from Pascal Laugier's 2008 horror film, which gets under the skin (no pun intended) in a way few films can. What happens in the rest of the movie is almost unspeakable, but the opening scene — a single tracking shot that follows a terrified, bloodied young girl as she runs from an unknown horror — is a marvel of mood-setting that wrings out scares through the power of suggestion. What could possibly have left the girl in such a state? We don't find out until much later, but the suggestive power of that opening image is enough to leave us in a state of dread.

12. “The Howling” (1981)

Joe Dante's famed werewolf film opens with a tense scene in a sleazy L.A. porn theater, where T.V. news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone) confronts her murderous stalker while wearing a police wire. True to its setting, you may feel the urge to take a shower after watching this…or at the very least coat your hands in Purell.

11. “Halloween” (1978)

John Carpenter expertly sets the tone of his iconic 1978 slasher in the nearly dialogue-free opener, which takes place entirely from the point of view of a masked killer who brutally murders a young woman in her bedroom. We all know the reveal by now, but it must have been shocking to audiences at the time when the killer was unmasked as a sweet-faced little boy in a clown suit. There's something deeply disturbing about the first-person perspective here, and Carpenter's minimalist score is the creepiest.

10. “Suspiria” (1977)

There is a pummeling, propulsive intensity to the first 15 minutes or so of Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece that begins with a rain-shrouded taxicab ride and ends with the hyperbolic murder of a young dance student. Underpinning it all is Goblin's ever-present score, which sounds like a direct portal to Hell.

9. “The Exorcist” (1973)

Before Ellen Burstyn's suburban terror begins, Father Merrin comes across the mangled statue of Pazuzu in the Iraqi desert in a brief moment that uses an ominous string score to put us immediately on edge. It's unsettling more than terrifying, but it is very unsettling, from the primal dog fighting sound effects to the backlit form of the statue itself.

8. “The Shining” (1980)

While “The Shining's” most famous scare moments come much later in the film, Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece opens with one of the most unnerving title sequences ever. Talk about setting the mood — Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's bone-chilling score echoes across the expansive helicopter-shot vistas of Colorado's Rocky Mountains like a tormented howl from the beyond. Before a single line of dialogue is spoken, you are sufficiently rattled.

7. “The Stepfather” (1987)

The queasy opening sequence of Joseph Ruben's cult 1987 film depicts the aftermath of a massacre in a suburban home…that just so happens to have been perpetrated by Terry O'Quinn's deranged daddy. Watching him silently and calmly stride past the brutalized bodies of his former family on his way out the front door is a shocking, unforgettable image.

6. “Black Christmas” (1974)

John Carpenter was clearly influenced by the opening of Bob Clark's Yuletide slasher in crafting his more famous prologue, and indeed, the ragged first-person P.O.V. featured here preceded his film's by a full four years. The scariest moment (not included in the below clip) occurs about seven minutes in, when the sorority girls gather around for one of the most nerve-shattering obscene phone calls of all time. The way Clark lingers on the killer's deranged voiceover is merciless.

5. “28 Days Later” (2002)

The viral breakout depicted in Danny Boyle's 2002 “zombie” film begins with a nightmarish opening scene that sees a group of animal activists being massacred by frantic red-eyed chimpanzees infected with the “Rage” virus. Thanks to a mixture of bone-rattling sound effects and a color scheme that bathes everything in red, Boyle renders the scene as a vision of Hell — and succeeds mightily.

4. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)

The first 20 minutes of Wes Craven's iconic slasher are the best of the film by far, and the opening dream sequence is genuinely frightening thanks to Charles Bernstein's demented lullaby score, the clattering boiler room setting and a mostly-unseen Freddy Krueger's sadistic cackling. I'll say this for Tina: she may have been the most short-lived character in the original film, but her scenes are the scariest of the entire franchise.

3. “When a Stranger Calls” (1979)

Before she was a wacky landlord with a criminal past on Netflix's “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Carol Kane was teenager babysitter Jill Johnson, who in the famed opening sequence of this 1979 thriller is mercilessly tormented by a creepy-voiced caller. The rest of the film doesn't live up to the first 15 minutes, which is a shame because it's one of the all-time scariest prologues in cinema history. The unnerving slow build is punctuated by some truly skin-crawling voiceover work (“What do you want?” “Your blood….alllll over me”) and a climax that brings one of the scariest of urban legends to terrifying life.

2. “The Ring” (2002)

The setup here may be simple, but the way director Gore Verbinski ratchets up the tension is remarkably effective. After deftly setting up the movie's core conceit with a spooky story told between teenage friends in a suburban home, a succession of strange events lead up to one of the most terrifying almost-reveals in film history. Don't worry: it's paid off later with a terrific jump scare.

1. “Jaws” (1975)

Here it is: the most terrifying opening scene of all time. There is something utterly harrowing about the experience of watching unfortunate nude bather Chrissy scream for her life as she's dragged mercilessly through the black ocean by an unseen predator; we can all relate to her vulnerability and isolation. And can I just say: allowing the doomed woman that brief buoy-clutching respite before mercilessly ripping it away again is beyond cruel. Credit must go to actress Susan Blacklinie for her terrifyingly realistic reactions here, and to Spielberg for preying on our worst fears with Hitchcockian ruthlessness.

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