You know when you open a book for the first time and within a couple of pages you’ve made a decision whether you’re going to carry on reading, or put it down, quietly promising yourself never to crease its spine again? I have that same issue with movies. If I’m not invested in the characters or story within the first twenty minutes, my mind wanders and I start checking my phone, firing up the laptop or – in the greatest insult to the movie – heading to the kitchen to look in the fridge, even though I just ate.
I get that this, in some ways, is a damning indictment of the world we (I) live in; always connected, addicted to technology, low concentration levels, etc. Truth be told, I had a very low-boredom threshold way before I owned a smart phone, so the digital age affords me no excuse at all.
Some movies, however, know exactly what I need. They haven’t forgotten that, above all, they’re supposed to be entertaining, and they command my attention from the moment that first visual bursts into life. Nothing matters but the events unfolding before me, and everything else just falls away.
It’s all about the first chapter…
“Cover her face with the mask of Satan. Nail it down!”
These are the words of the Grand Inquisitor, and brother of Asa Vajda, as he condemns her to death for witchcraft. Black Sunday is Gothic horror perfection, a tale of a vengeful witch who returns to wreak havoc upon her descendants.
The movie was shot in a rich black and white, which seems to only add depth to the visuals and an element of dark foreboding that would have sat at odds had the film been made in colour. Of course, none of this is any surprise if you’re aware of Mario Bava’s other work. From the gorgeous Giallo, Blood and Black Lace, to the proto-slasher Twitch of the Death Nerve, Bava was an absolute master of a visual set-piece and Black Sunday is no exception.
This opening sequence, though, is particularly striking for the moment the executioner looms towards the unrepentant Asa, face shrouded in black and brandishing an enormous, heavy mallet, which comes down upon the spiked mask, pinning it to her face. A thin stream of liquid escapes from an eye hole. Is it blood? A tear? It’s a frightening and excruciating image to end the beautifully shot, and creepily atmospheric opening to Mario Bava’s debut proper.
If it wasn’t for that strange, almost science-fictionesque, intro music that plays as a 1967 Pontiac Lemans steadily winds its way along curving, deserted roads, there’d be no inkling we’re about to watch a horror movie.
Of course, the title card to George A. Romero’s masterpiece is a dead giveaway and before long the car rolls into an old cemetery, where we finally meet the driver and his passenger, siblings Johnny and Barbara Blair – who, as we quickly discover, they’re most definitely coming to get!
What makes this sequence so starkly brilliant is the number of subtle signals that something is not quite right: the aforementioned deserted roads, the radio that seemingly doesn’t work and then kicks back into life, and, of course, the cemetery entrance sign riddled with what appear to be bullet holes (why shoot at the resting place of the departed, unless they’re not actually gone?)
It’s wonderfully ironic that Johnny and Barbara have come to pay their respects to the dead, who, as it transpires, do not return the favour. Also, as we see when Barbara locks herself in the car, the zombie – or ghoul, to give them Romero’s preferred title – isn’t the mindless creature that countless subsequent zombie flicks insisted upon, as it seeks out a rock to break the window rather than futilely hammering on the glass (this idea that the zombie was capable of cognitive thought wasn’t really picked up upon again until Romero made Day of the Dead seventeen years later).
Half a century on from its premiere at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh, the opening of Night of the Living Dead remains as chillingly iconic as ever.
Poor Chrissie Watkins. Had Tom Cassidy not drunk that extra beer he might have been sober enough to catch her and explain what a stupid idea going swimming in the dark was. Maybe they’d have spent the night together, dated, married, bought a house, had kids. But no, Tom was too drunk and Chrissie too fast and willful. What followed, of course, sent a wave of pure visceral shock so resonant that there’s nary a person alive who doesn’t experience a pang of trepidation whenever they step into a body of water. And Jaws, the greatest film of all time (because it is), is entirely to blame.
As an opening scene, the attack of Chrissie Watkins by an unseen menace is one of the most shocking moments ever captured on celluloid. And yet we see nothing apart from Chrissie’s flailing body and screams of anguish, pleading for help as something lurking under the surface rips into her. There’s no blood, and Chrissie’s plight is mostly viewed in silhouette, yet it is singularly terrifying; a monstrous, awful, breathless experience that despite countless watches never relinquishes its suffocating effect on the viewer. We watch, unable to tear our gaze away, while thanking our lucky stars that Chrissie’s plight isn’t ours.
Despite three further efforts, the franchise never repeated the primal maelstrom of Chrissie’s death. Yet, surprisingly, it’s the reviled Jaws The Revenge that comes closest, when the youngest Brody sibling, Sean, meets his fate in the black waters off Amity Island; a practicing choir on the quayside drowning out his plaintive cries as the Great White shark moves in for the kill.
What does it all mean? As it transpires, not very much. Suspiria isn’t really about a witches coven or the German-set adventures of Suzy Bannion; it doesn’t offer any deep insight or make a great deal of sense. Instead, it’s an assault on the senses, awash with primary colours, incredible sound design and plenty of gore. It’s also one of the most aesthetically beautiful movies ever made.
The opening scene is as shocking as any in cinema, rattling the viewer into a state of disequilibrium that is sustained during the course of the entire movie. Starting with Suzy’s arrival in Frieberg during a thunderstorm, the gruff, unfriendly treatment from her cab driver, and the confusion as Suzy spies a student fleeing, terrified, into the rain-lashed night just as she arrives at the Tanz Dance Academy. Suzy is then turned away from the Academy altogether. All of this is designed to throw us off-kilter. And then things really go south.
Pat Hingle’s subsequent murder by a mostly-unseen assailant, who stabs her repeatedly in intricate, graphic detail – the almost lovingly depicted knife piercing her beating heart is wince-inducing – before she is pushed through glass to the lobby below, hung by the neck, the broken shards impaling her friend. It’s particularly striking to watch all of this unfold set against angular, German Expressionistic decor, in bright three-strip technicolour. The entire sequence is utterly breathless and the movie has barely begun!
Then, of course, there’s Goblin’s staggering soundtrack; particularly the dreamy, fairy-tale lilt of the title track, which manages to be both soothing and unsettling in equal measure. At the risk of hyperbole, it’s a genius soundtrack to a genius cinematic work of art. Who needs a conventional narrative, anyway?
I don’t mind admitting that I discovered Halloween quite late. I took a Film Studies class when I was about 18-years-old and the lecturer played us a number of opening scenes across different movie genres. Two immediately struck a chord, Goodfellas and Halloween. Now, I was already a horror movie fan. I’d grown up watching vampire and werewolf films, every movie starring Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees occupied a place in my collection, but for some curious reason (which seems absurd, in hindsight) Michael Myers had passed me by. The opening Steadicam sequence changed all that.
Actually, it was the music that initially drew me in. John Carpenter’s eerie, A-minor key score that plays out as we close in on the Jack-o-lantern clicked with me straight away, followed by the Myer’s house with that unforgettable point-of-view sequence. It was so unnerving to observe events through the eyes of this nefarious stalker as he or she watches the amorous couple from the window, then creeps through the house, picking up a clown mask and selecting a knife from the kitchen drawer. When the stalker switches to kill mode and murders the teenage, and post-coital, Judith Myers (an early stab – sorry – at the slasher morality trope: Sex = Death), it’s equally jarring to discover that the masked monster is familiar to young Judith, as she exclaims, “Michael!” before he attacks. When the mask is finally removed, we discover a bewildered-looking, angelic child, brandishing an enormous carving knife, and the camera pans up and away, allowing us to survey the scene. We’re in suburbia and the monsters are in our homes.
Had I watched this movie in my early teens, I probably wouldn’t have read so deeply into the themes of the film – something John Carpenter insists don’t exist anyway – but to me Halloween is the perfect example of a simple story so exquisitely rendered that its layers are almost unfathomable. The movie also set me off on an odyssey to discover more Holiday-set horrors, but it’s Halloween above all that continues to intrigue and enthrall me still.
I’ve discovered recently that there appears to be a burgeoning school of thought that one has a preference for either An American Werewolf in London or The Howling as the greatest movie about lycanthropy (honourary mention for the exemplary Dog Soldiers). While I am an avowed fan of The Howling, I have never quite felt the same way about Joe Dante’s film as I do about John Landis’s effort. Maybe it has something to do with snatching a few brief images of Rick Baker’s famous transformation scene via a crack in the door as a child.
Whatever it may have been, the opening sequence to An American Werewolf in London is probably my favourite movie opening of all. From Bobby Vinton’s mournful version of Blue Moon set against several shots of mist-covered moors, to the ferocious, tragic denouement approximately 17 minutes later, it’s an exercise in sustained dread, with David and Jack’s fate hermetically-sealed as soon as they disembark from the back of the truck shared with ovine set for slaughter – the boys unwittingly heading towards their own premature demise.
They encounter such hostility at every turn – the chill of the moors, the Slaughtered Lamb and its patrons, the impending darkness, the primal howl as the beast circles – that the dreadful feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, longing for home, is palpable. Jack’s nervous comic asides only serve to heighten the tension as they, and the viewer, become increasingly aware there’s no way out.
I was on a date the first time I saw this and I went into the movie completely cold. I was aware it was a horror movie, but that was all I had to go on and my experience was all the better for it.
The opening salvo is just under 13 minutes of sustained tension via a cat-and-mouse game between the teenage Casey Becker and a malevolent voice on the other end of the phone who may be a lot closer than she thinks.
Of course, as I watched transfixed for the first time, I wondered how Casey would manage to escape. After all, she was being played by Drew Barrymore, by far the most famous name in the film and clearly the heroine. And then she’s eviscerated and hung from a tree.
This was an absolute game changer for me. Sure, Hitchcock played a similar trick with Janet Leigh in Psycho, 36 years before, but he’d given Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, a full 40 minutes before offing her. Wes Craven (via Kevin Williamson’s script) gave Barrymore barely half of that. Now all bets were off, no-one was safe – if the star of the film could be killed off, everyone was a potential victim. Or suspect.
Over the course of 111-minutes, Scream reignited my flagging love for the slasher sub-genre. To be honest, it was the shot in the arm that the horror movie needed at that time. As we left the cinema after the movie, all I wanted to talk about was Scream. I even briefly considered heading back in for the next showing, but my date was driving that night, so I thought better of it.
Incidentally, we didn’t go on another date.
Certain movies feature sequences that leave you feeling completely helpless. Obviously, we’re little more than voyeurs anyway, but that utterly abject feeling of being unable to affect the outcome is never more potent than during the opening of It Follows.
The reason for this, aside from the fairly standard ‘woman-in-peril’ trope is due to the way it’s shot. The camera is completely static as we follow Annie Marshall’s panicked 360 degree stumble around the suburban street that she lives on. It’s such an uncomfortable watch as it forces us to be the passive viewer of a terrified young woman being stalked by something unseen. Even the attempted intervention of her Dad, an ostensible source of parental comfort, doesn’t halt her need to keep moving, to get away.
Later, Annie’s at the beach, speaking to her Dad on her mobile phone, with the headlights of her car shining upon her, and the red of the parking lights illuminating the woods behind (red indicating danger). It’s a deeply unsettling moment. Watching it again, it’s still unbearably tense and, although I know there’ll be no monster lumbering out of the woods bent on attacking Annie, I can’t help but feel it’s coming, which is entirely the point. When the film does cut to reveal the eventual fate of Annie, of course, it’s unimaginably shocking.
Clearly, there are a number of opening scenes I could (and perhaps should) have included, but this article would have run to thousands of words and taken up half of your day! Instead, I decided to cover the movie openings that mean the most to me at the expense of a number of great openings that perhaps you might believe are more deserving. So, apologies to the Dawn of the Dead remake, The Beyond, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Carrie, et al, for the omission.
Maybe if there’s a part two…