The Conjuring (2013)

At least a half-hour passes in Psycho before Marion Crane takes that fateful shower. Even more running time elapses before John Hurt gets some very nasty chest pains in Alien. And the best fright flick of the new millennium is half over before anything remotely frightening occurs. Plenty of great horror movies, in other words, take their time getting to the good stuff. But there’s still something exciting about a scary movie that’s scary from the very start—one that opens with a big shock, sets a perfect tone immediately, or begins ratcheting up the suspense from the first frames. When it comes to the spooky stuff, sometimes it’s good to get right down to hair-raising business.

With Halloween right around the corner, and Horrors Weeks in full swing, The A.V. Club is counting down the scariest, creepiest, and most nerve-shredding opening scenes in horror-movie history. The films range in release date from 1960 to next year, when a festival favorite of ours will finally hit theaters. (Because beginning with a bang is a fairly modern tradition, we couldn’t find anything particularly applicable from cinema’s first half-century—though we wracked our brains, honest!) The scenes themselves range in length, from about a minute to a good 15 or 20, with the only criteria being that they must constitute the first scene or passage, excepting a credits sequence. The films range in quality as well, because even a terrible horror movie can start exceptionally strong. Steel your nerves and secure your popcorn, because these are The A.V Club’s 25 scariest opening scenes in horror-movie history:

25. The Beyond (1981)

Even in his giallo movies, suspense was never really Lucio Fulci’s thing. The Italian director was more into gross-out gore, and there’s plenty of that in the opening scene of The Beyond. Serving as a prologue to the film’s main plot, the scene rewinds to 1927 and the murder of a suspected warlock in the basement of the Seven Doors Hotel, so named because it contains one of the seven portals to hell. That’s not a great advertising strategy, and neither is the sight of watching the mob beat its victim—whether he’s innocent is up for debate—with iron chains, nail him to a stone wall, and throw quicklime on him so he starts dissolving before our eyes into a fizzy goop. It’s repulsive, excessive, and oddly titillating, just like the rest the film. [Katie Rife]

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24. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

More than a year after it premiered in Toronto under the title February, director Oz Perkins’ supremely creepy directorial debut still hasn’t crept into theaters. Horror buffs will have to wait until next year, when A24 finally releases the film, to feel it burrow under their skin—a process that begins in the opening minutes, with a deeply unnerving dream sequence. Answering a ringing telephone on the far end of a long hallway, prep-school student Kat (Kiernan Shipka) receives bad news (the voice on the line is an unholy croak), before having visions of an ominous snowbank, a demolished car, and a man in a long, black overcoat. The dream is over as quickly as it began, but the suffocating dread seems to follow Kat into her waking life, suffusing the entire movie—an exercise in sustained unease that recalls everything from Suspiria to The Shining—with the atmosphere of a nightmare that never ends. [A.A. Dowd]

23. The Pact (2012)

The Pact opens on an unblinking eye, like an inverted homage to the rapidly blinking eye that kicks off Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. But then the eye blinks and changes color, letting you know immediately something’s amiss. That disconnected moment leads into a classic “alone in the house” scenario, and director Nicholas McCarthy is practically Spielbergian in his narrative cleverness. A pot of boiling water creates an almost unnoticeable transition from day to night; the camera follows two conversations (one by phone, one by computer) through the cramped quarters, efficiently establishing geography; and then a great use of “There’s someone behind you” leads into… nothing. The actor vanishing silently into a darkened room ends up being far more chilling than any jump scare, and the whole sequence sets up a film that marks McCarthy as one of the more promising young horror directors working today. [Alex McLevy]

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22. The Conjuring (2013)

James Wan came on the horror scene with the overwrought twistiness of Saw, but his Conjuring movies have a genre classicism that borders on stateliness by comparison. On paper, the opening of The Conjuring is pure boilerplate (a creepy doll that seems to move when people aren’t around) bracketed with excess information (paranormal investigators listen to the story of the creepy doll and explain what they think is behind it). But Wan plays hauntings like a conductor plays an orchestra. He starts the conversation on a black screen, before cutting into an extreme close-up of a creepy doll’s eye, which he pulls back from slowly. When Wan turns to the humans menaced by this doll, he uses his lighting scheme to conceal faces, corners of rooms, and the doll itself. The interview setup offers no safety, because the first shot establishes that the doll is still sitting right there with them. Even Wan’s exposition has a visceral tension. [Jesse Hassenger]

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21. Cube (1997)

Without a word of dialogue, Vincenzo Natali’s Cube establishes the entire, diabolical game of its conceit in just under three minutes. A man in a prisoner’s jumpsuit awakens, confused, inside a massive, cube-shaped room with four hatches. Testing each, he finds they all lead to other cube-shaped rooms, all bathed in different colors. He chooses one, seemingly at random, and, in the blink of an eye, tiny lines appear across his face. As the blood begins to trickle, his body separates into cubes of its own, slowly crumbling to the floor like a diced potato. Meanwhile, a now-bloody booby trap swings back into view, folding into the ceiling to await its next victim. Like the other characters (who will have to do a much better job of navigating), the audience may not understand the why of what’s going on—but already has everything it needs to know. [Sean O’Neal]

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20. Darkness Falls (2003)

Darkness Falls is a dreadful movie, a paint-by-numbers teen horror flick that can barely marshal the energy to put the “jump” in its jump scares. But its opening scene is an inspired bit of horror filmmaking, as director Jonathan Liebesman pivots from a hokey opening-credits explanation of the film’s central mythos to a terrific bedtime haunting. The success lies in the timing of the reveals, as well as the unexpected incorporation of the mom, given that parents are usually the ones to show up and scream after the fact. And the camera pulls back at the end to reveal the monster floating, above the door, in a great and chilling tease for the movie to come… if only it lived up to that prompt. [Alex McLevy]

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19. Day Of The Dead (1985)

George Romero originally planned to out-do his 1968 cult hit Night Of The Living Dead and its critically acclaimed 1978 sequel Dawn Of The Dead with a grander-scaled third chapter. But a tight budget primarily limited Day Of The Dead to one sparsely decorated underground bunker. The best representation of what the director had in mind can be seen in the movie’s pulse-pounding first five minutes. It begins with Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) imagining herself staring at a pretty picture in an otherwise featureless room, before a dozen writhing zombie arms burst through the wall. Then the doc wakes up on a helicopter heading to an abandoned Florida city, on a search for human survivors of the zombie apocalypse. The trash-strewn streets gradually fill with the shambling undead, revealing the full horrifying scope of the plague and making Bowman’s nightmares come to life. Day Of The Dead may not have been the gore-soaked Gone With The Wind that its creator intended, but for a few minutes at least, Romero staged his own ghoul-infested version of the Battle Of Atlanta. [Noel Murray]

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18. The Hitcher (1986)

A critical and commercial failure in its initial release, The Hitcher has earned a well-deserved cult following. In the indelible opening stretch, a young man (C. Thomas Howell) picks up an enigmatic hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere. It’s the stuff campfire scares are made of, but The Hitcher turns into something more fundamentally unsettled, combining Hauer’s magnetism, the mystery of roadside landscapes, and the intimacy of a car interior into a source of both mounting discomfort and seduction. As in Blade Runner, Hauer makes a great psychopath by playing to the camera: He fascinates, allowing The Hitcher to create a situation that no viewer would ever want to find themselves in, but which they can’t stop watching. Great horror can trick its audience into not being able to look away. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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17. Carrie (1976)

As much as Carrie is a movie about an outcast who uses her telekinetic powers for revenge, it’s also a movie about teenage girls. That’s how it starts: with an overhead shot of girls in gym class playing volleyball, the camera craning down to find Carrie (Sissy Spacek) standing nervously in the back row, about to screw up a crucial play. When director Brian De Palma cuts to slow-motion locker-room voyeurism, the camera eventually finds Carrie again, her shower reverie broken as a close-up reveals, to her horror, blood making its way down her legs. Her delayed first period sends her into a panic, to which her classmates respond by pelting her with tampons, laughing and chanting “plug it up!” as she pleads for help. This scene contains only a single supernatural moment, when Carrie’s stress pops an overhead lightbulb. No one pays much mind. Instead, the opening traffics in different, more relatable anxieties: social misery, loneliness, cruel mockery, and an empathetic fear for Carrie herself, who seems so unequipped to navigate this nasty world. [Jesse Hassenger]

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16. Black Sunday (1960)

Gruesome by the standards of its time, Black Sunday was the movie that put Italian horror on the map: a lurid Gothic tale of cobweb-filled crypts, fog-shrouded cemeteries, and devil-worshipping Moldavian vampire-sorcerers. The much-imitated opening, in which a 17th-century witch (Barbara Steele) curses her executioners, still disturbs. Director-cinematographer Mario Bava’s style is exclusively visual (the acting here is nothing to write home about), hearkening back to expressionist silent film and 1930s Universal horror; his lush, textured black-and-white images relish and even fetishize the torture and torchlight. Black Sunday doesn’t just show the repulsive, but treats it as though it were self-evidently beautiful: blood spurting from a spike, flesh glistening under a brand, a gargoyle mask being fitted over a young woman’s face. Countless stylized Italian horror and giallo movies followed in Black Sunday’s creaking footsteps, but the first time is still one of the best. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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15. Them (2006)

While anticipation of the inevitable—what’s around that corner, what’s behind the door—can goose adrenaline and ratchet up tension, it’s easy to tip over into predictability. Them, a film in which probably 90 percent of the dialogue happens in the first 10 minutes, uses its opening sequence to demonstrate the power of staying in the moment with a character, rather than wandering ahead. From the moment the mother disappears from in front of the car, the audience is given the daughter’s perspective, close-ups of her face continually intercut with her point of view, frantically scanning the surroundings, without a chance to worry about anything beyond the immediate. When the taunts begin, the hook has already been set—with a last scare that still surprises. [Alex McLevy]

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14. When A Stranger Calls (1979)

The nerve-jangling first 20 minutes of When A Stranger Calls began life as a 1977 short called “The Sitter,” by writer-director Fred Walton and co-writer-producer Steve Feke, who’d go on to make the feature-length version. Their longer take on the story is sluggish in its final hour (until the excruciatingly tense finale, that is), but act one has been honed into a devastatingly effective weapon. The long opening follows an increasingly nervous babysitter as she keeps getting phone calls from someone who asks, softly and ominously, “Have you checked the children?” From Carol Kane’s escalating anxiety as a woman alone, to the blood-chilling kicker from the police—“The calls are coming from inside the house!”—When A Stranger Calls begins with a sequence that’s a suspense classic in and of itself, touching on our common fear of being stalked where we live. [Noel Murray]

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13. Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

It’s hard to remember a time when Zack Snyder was an exciting new name in genre filmmaking. But for a few harrowing minutes, the man behind Batman V Superman really did look like a master of horror in the making. Snyder’s career-launching remake of Dawn Of The Dead begins on an idyll of suburban calm that’s nightmarishly shattered when a zombified little girl invades the home of an unsuspecting ER nurse (Sarah Polley). The horror then goes from micro to macro as our traumatized heroine steps out into blinding daylight to discover that her entire neighborhood—and by extension, the entire planet—has gone straight to hell. Snyder’s coup de gras: a stylishly disturbing credits sequence that sets an end-of-the-world montage to the apocalyptic folk of Johnny Cash’s “When The Man Comes Around.” On a whole, Snyder’s Dawn is no patch on George Romero’s. But its opening onslaught of terror stands alone, promising a better movie (and career) than the one that followed. [A.A. Dowd]

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12. The Stepfather (1987)

If you showed somebody unfamiliar with The Stepfather its opening scene, absent any context, they’d be likely to assume that it’s the movie’s finale. In a way, it is—or, rather, it’s the finale of an otherwise unseen prequel that would introduce Henry Morrison (Terry O’Quinn), a man whose expectations regarding the ideal family unit are both unrealistically high and horrifically unforgiving. Director Joseph Ruben, working from a screenplay by Donald E. Westlake, doesn’t try to be cute, showing Henry with bloodstained hands and arms the very first time we see him, standing in front of his bathroom mirror. There’s no doubt that something awful has happened, no big reveal in store. But that just makes it all the more unnerving to watch Henry methodically alter his appearance: trimming his shaggy hair, shaving his beard, and even disguising the color of his eyes via contact lenses. Only when he’s all but unrecognizable does he casually walk downstairs and past the mutilated remains of several bodies—identified as his own wife and children by pictures on the wall, so that we know he’s not some random home invader. Whistling “Camptown Races,” he strolls off to become “Jerry Blake,” seeking a new, unwitting family to disappoint him. [Mike D’Angelo]

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11. Ghost Ship (2002)

The opening moments of Steve Beck’s supernatural sort-of-thriller Ghost Ship are a microcosm of everything great about horror movies. As cruise ship passengers dance romantically beneath the stars, tension builds as the camera tracks a razor-thin wire, slowly stretching taut around them after being set in motion by a mystery person’s hand. When the cable finally snaps, slicing through all aboard—save for one little girl, spared by her height—there’s a pregnant, blackly comic pause as everyone slowly realizes what’s happened. It’s followed by a gory sequence of their newly halved bodies slip-sliding apart, and finally, genuine psychological terror, as the little girl realizes she’s now all alone, in the middle of the ocean, atop a floating corpse-pile. The rest of Ghost Ship would be hard-pressed to live up to that, even with a script that wasn’t tedious, predictable claptrap. But for those few fleeting minutes, it’s a classic. [Sean O’Neal]

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10. It Follows (2014)

The opening scene of It Follows—even just its opening shot—immediately earned David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature a place in the annals of formalist horror. Running almost two minutes, it’s both tightly controlled and very abstract: The audience has no idea who this young woman might be (in fact, she’ll be dead before the movie hits the three-minute mark) or what she might be fleeing from on this unremarkable suburban street at twilight. Instead, it’s the sound design and the deliberate, persistent movement of the camera that creates the sense of an immediate threat. From this first scene, It Follows teaches its audience to fear the frame. The source of dread isn’t the movie’s invisible, shape-shifting monster—a protean metaphor if there ever was one—but the most basic properties of movie style. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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9. Final Destination 2 (2003)

All five Final Destination movies begin the same way: Some hunk or babe experiences a premonition of mass doom (a plane crash, a malfunctioning roller coaster, a bloodbath at the race track), which they and a few others are then able to narrowly sidestep, incurring the score-settling wrath of death itself. Every one of these opening set pieces is a gory delight, but the best of the bunch is probably the multi-car pileup of the first sequel. The late David R. Ellis masterfully ratchets up suspense, cutting from one driver to another on a crowded, slippery stretch of highway, before orchestrating a spectacular panorama of vehicular mayhem. Like the Final Destination franchise on a whole, this disaster movie in miniature plays on a collective fear of senseless demise, building a diabolical Rube Goldberg device from of our anxiety about freak accidents. Bonus points for doubling the carnage, as these movies always do, by chasing the vision of impending catastrophe with the actual one that follows. It’s two demolition derbies for the price of one! [A.A. Dowd]

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8. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982)

John Landis is a comedy director as much as he is a horror director, but no matter what genre he’s working in, he’s always a baby boomer. All of these elements come together beautifully in Landis’ prologue to the 1983 anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie, which opens with comedians Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd cruising down a dark, winding highway toward some unknown destination, jamming to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Midnight Special” on the car radio. When the tape breaks, the restless duo start playing a series of car games, from the reckless (driving with the headlights off) to the shamelessly nostalgic (a ’50s and ’60s TV-heavy game of “Name That Tune”). This leads to a discussion of Twilight Zone twist endings, which, of course, leads to a twist ending of its own. How very meta. [Katie Rife]

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7. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

The first thing that hits you in the opening moments of 28 Weeks Later is the oppressive silence. It lasts just long enough to establish a mood of haunted paranoia, as though these are the only people left on Earth—and then all hell breaks loose. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo pulls off the unlikely feat of crafting a worthy sequel to Danny Boyle’s hit zombie reinvention flick, but the reintroduction to this world steals the show. It’s a miniature zombie movie, told in barely more than six minutes, that nonetheless encompasses an entire narrative unto itself. And, much like Robert Carlyle’s panicked breaths on his escape boat, the sequence leaves viewers breathless and exhilarated, and with the bleak assurance that death is coming for everyone. [Alex McLevy]

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6. The Ring (2002)

Gore Verbinksi’s American remake of the J-horror phenomenon is a textbook case of how to do great horror: It takes an old trope (two teenagers telling the story of a mythical boogeyman, only to have it become horrifyingly real) and updates it with a modern conceit. In this case, it’s the VHS tape possessed by an evil spirit, providing a bevy of allegories and ideas for discussion. But in its first minutes, the film is nothing but a master class in suspense, staged by Verbinski as a series of back-and-forth shots between empty but menacing rooms and Amber Tamblyn’s increasingly terrified face. We don’t yet know how the creature works, and that lack of knowledge is the scene’s trump card. Besides that, the entire premise is laid out in a few short sentences, meaning the sequence—and entire film that follows—needs no clarification, just an ongoing white-knuckle wait for the other shoe to drop. [Alex McLevy]

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5. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” For nearly 50 years now, that line has cast a pall over joking threats of potential mayhem, evoking a disturbing possibility: Maybe, just maybe, they really are coming to get you. George Romero’s first zombie movie eventually serves up a small army of hungry corpses, but it kicks off with a single, slightly lurching guy (Bill Hinzman) in a suit, looking like just another mourner at the cemetery where Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner), have arrived to place a wreath on their father’s grave. Johnny, teasing Barbra about how scared she’d been as a kid, pretends that this dapper dude is stalking her, but finds out soon enough that he’s speaking the truth (though he doesn’t get much time to appreciate the cruel irony). Not only does Night Of The Living Dead’s initial murder and subsequent frantic chase launch an enduring nightmare-fuel franchise, it confirms even the most fleeting and ludicrous thought about the intentions of random strangers in deserted locations. Just because you’re paranoid… [Mike D’Angelo]

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4. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s genre-defining Halloween was not to the first to use a stalking “creep’s eye” point of view for its opening scene (Bob Clark’s Black Christmas did something similar four years earlier), but it remains the standard. This chilling prologue sequence, set on Halloween in 1963, is almost its own short film, with an ending twist that is perhaps more disturbing than the bloody murder that precedes it. Attempts at imitating the first-person with a camera are often awkward, but Halloween’s unbroken handheld shot is amazingly fluid. Carpenter’s stylized staging of the sequence treats the gaze of the young Michael Myers as elemental; slipping from artful expressionism into lurid voyeurism, the whole unshakeable sequence suggests the perspective of a killer whose psyche could be the dark side of film itself. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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3. Suspiria (1977)

The opening of Dario Argento’s Suspiria perfectly sets the tone for the film, establishing a vividly stylized nightmare world that’s equal parts beautiful and terrifying. The film begins with a simple black-and-white title sequence, before cutting to the world’s most stylishly lit airport, where we first meet American student Suzy (Jessica Harper). When Suzy pulls up to her new home, a German ballet school, in the pouring rain, we switch focus to a frantic young woman fleeing the school on foot. She takes refuge in a friend’s similarly stylish apartment, where she’s besieged by an unknown supernatural assailant as Goblin’s music whips itself into a pagan frenzy in the background. The scene culminates in a bloody, brutal hanging death, a clear signal that this particular fairy tale is way more Brothers Grimm than Disney. [Katie Rife]

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2. Scream (1996)

The late Wes Craven was a master of reinvention, and the opening of 1996’s Scream heralded yet another new chapter in his career. Functioning essentially as a stand-alone short film, the 13-minute sequence informs the viewer that all the rules of horror movies—rules that Craven himself had helped establish—no longer applied. Drew Barrymore’s Casey was not going to make it, no matter how hard she fought back. The biggest star in the film, then in the midst of a career renaissance, was not going to survive through the opening credits. And her death, when it inevitably did arrive, was brutal. Shooting the scene over the course of five days, Craven reportedly kept Barrymore, a devoted vegetarian, upset throughout filming by telling her stories of animal cruelty, a sadistic little touch that fits nicely with his ethos. [Katie Rife]

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1. Jaws (1975)

Poor Chrissie. All she wanted was a relaxing skinny dip on a nice summer night, and maybe to get laid by the drunk hippy she makes eyes with across the beach bonfire. Instead, the girl ends up chum, and the unwitting star of the scariest opening scene in all of horror. Much has been made of the problems Steven Spielberg suffered with his mechanical shark, whose malfunctions supposedly forced the director to rely more on implication than special effects. But it’s clear from the very first scene of this seminal blockbuster that Spielberg was already a master of suggestion: He shows us nothing but the mighty beast’s ominous point of view, but we see everything in our minds—the bloody work being made of Chrissie’s lower half, as she’s thrashed around like a fish on a line, gurgling “It hurts” to no one who can hear her. It’s one of the most convincing expressions of terror ever put on film (the actress, Susan Backlinie, deserves a spot in the scream-queen hall of fame for her three minutes of screen time), and that monstrous fear ripples through all of Jaws, staying on our minds even (or perhaps especially) when the shark is “safely” out of sight. You died too young, Chrissie. But we think of you every time we dip our toes in a dark body of water and decide that maybe dry land is the better bet. [A.A. Dowd]

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