October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror film opening credits sequences is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
You know what they say: you only get one chance at a good first impression. And by impression, we of course mean “terrifying the hell out of your audience right out of the gate.”
Horror films, perhaps more than any other genre, thrive on mood. A spooky cinematic outing can have a slice of cheese for a budget but if the vibe is right, anything is possible. And the best way to set said mood is to grab your audience by the throat right from the jump. Why waste an opening credits sequence just on credits. That’s an opportunity to let your future victims, uh, I mean viewers know what kind of bloodbath they’ve signed up for.
So, what makes a horror opening credits sequence great rather than just good? Well, there’s no sure-fire recipe. But hiring Bernard Herrmann (or pretending to be Bernard Herrmann) seems to be a pretty solid strategy if the list below is anything to go by. Evocative, abstract imagery is also a plus. And a visually striking title card never hurt anybody.
So what do you say? Does a great horror film opening credits sequence get your blood pumping? If so, keep reading for a look at the top ten opening credits sequences in horror as voted on by Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, and myself.
10. Se7en (1995)
Over the years, David Fincher’s films have become known for their distinct opening title credits, from the whirlwind journey of Fight Club’s intro to the slick opening of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But what stands out about Se7en’s opening credits is how much their mere existence shifts the film. Designer Kyle Cooper, working in collaboration with frequent Fincher collaborators Angus Wall and Harris Savides, captured something at once repulsive and enthralling. The idea behind the credits was to see serial killer John Doe preparing himself for all that is to come. The writing in his journals and the matching scrawl of the credits create the impression that what we are seeing is under the control of a character we don’t meet until the third act.
While Se7en begins as a detective-driven investigative thriller, it ends as a straight-up horror movie. Perhaps with more understated credits, we would be less primed to recognize that the target of the investigation is deeply disturbed, even by psychological thriller standards. But with this opening getting under the skin — we quite literally see John Doe peel away his fingertips — it’s clear that Se7en is not your grandma’s mystery movie. (Anna Swanson)
9. Alien (1979)
In space, no one can hear you unionize, uh I mean, scream. Ridley Scott’s sub-genre-defining sci-fi horror show brought a distinctly cruel corporate edge to the far reaches of outer space. Instead of smooth technicolored spacesuits and atomic age daydreams, Scott smattered his ill-fated blue-collar astronauts with grime and sweat. The only sleekness afforded to this vision of the future resides in H.R. Giger’s slinking alien design… and its title card. In Alien‘s first moments we levitate over a forbidding planet. Abstracted white shapes appear, as dismembered as the doomed crew of the Nostromo. Enveloping the screen from the outside in, pinpointed towards the gaping middle, the pieces slowly come together. Slowly, but surely, they form a simple word denoting the purest notion of Otherness. Sans serif has never been so unsettling. (Meg Shields)
8. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
The score screams atop a collage of nightmarish imagery: tarantulas, skeletons, fire, flesh, etc. The visuals race by so quickly, you try to track what appears from the previous film (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul) and what hell is about to take over your life in this film. It’s not a melody you hum; it’s a sonic assault you try to propel from your brain the moment it ceases. As horror film opening credits go, the first four minutes of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is designed to ignite a panic attack. And it puts you on edge for the rest of the movie. Your heart rate now belongs to director/writer/composer José Mojica Marins, and the jerk delights in his power. You’re his puppet; just be happy he’s plucking your strings and not snipping them. (Brad Gullickson)
7. Sisters (1973)
Featuring cinematography by accomplished Swedish medical photographer Lennart Nilsson, the opening sequence to Brian De Palma’s Sisters is an unnerving melding of the satanic and the sacrosanct: two fetuses, rendered alien, imposing, and devilish under Nilsson’s macro lens. As the titles roll and the embryonic humans loom, the aural anxiety is ratcheted up to a fever pitch thanks to the shrieking strings of Bernard Herrmann, whose plinking, swooping score endows each close-up image with an uncanny sense of monstrosity. A montage of sinister fetus close-ups is the perfect way to kick off a film at the intersection of Hitchcock, giallo, and the psychosexual sci-fi fare of David Cronenberg. Sisters embodies essential 1970s genre film wickedness. And what could be more wicked than endowing the unborn with a palpable sense of menace? Thanks for sleazing it up, Brian. (Meg Shields)
6. Halloween (1978)
If nothing else, the variety of horror film opening credits sequences collected here are a tribute to both the artform and the value of declaring your film’s intentions from the very start. While some rely on new graphics and images and some actually deliver an early glimpse into the film’s world, others take a more simplistic route. The opening to John Carpenter‘s iconic slasher belongs in the latter camp as it pairs a singular image with your first exposure to the maestro’s brilliantly driving theme.
Darkness gives way to a jack-0-lantern, a candle’s flame flickering within. And as Carpenter’s synthesizer pulls you in with amped-up suspense the camera tracks ever closer to the eerily grinning face. Finally, with only one eye visible, the light goes out and we’re plunged once more into darkness. We all know what follows, but the tone — from the suspense to the autumn atmosphere — has already been established with nothing but a slow dolly zoom, an orange fruit, and a now-legendary music track. Genius. (Rob Hunter)