More so than any other genre, horror films have to grab their audience within the first few minutes to avoid anyone becoming lost or uninterested. Scary horror movie opening scenes are the pinnacle of the genre, and there are a few that really shock the viewer and not only convince them to invest their time in the film but throw them so completely off-kilter that it's impossible to guess what's coming next.
There are myriad ways to grip an audience and leave them wanting more, but the scariest first scenes in horror films all do something interesting and unique, whether it's establish a tone that presides over the rest of the film or simply offer a shock that's so upsetting the audience can't forget it. Each of these opening sequences is powerful in their own right, but they make for better viewing once you watch the rest of the film and know where the writers are going.
Are you brave enough to face the most unsettling opening scenes in horror movie history?
John Carpenter does many brilliant things throughout Halloween , but one of the first is introducing the audience to his boogeyman as a child. The opening sequence works as if it is its own short film - as many of the best opening sequences do - and manages to put the audience on edge by using the first-person camera perspective. This heavily stylized sequence takes the audience through the Myers household and ends with a vicious slaying which changes the scene from an artistic opening to a pulpy climax that grabs your attention.
Like the film itself, this opening scene has garnered countless mimics over the years (even within the Halloween franchise), but it's never been topped. The image of a young Michael dressed as a clown and covered in blood is both stressful and unforgettable.
Actors: Jamie Lee Curtis, Kyle Richards, Donald Pleasence, Sandy Johnson, Charles Cyphers, + more
Directed by: John Carpenter
Jaws is only Steven Spielberg's second feature film and it's clear from the onset that he knows exactly how to mold an audience. The first scene follows a teenage girl as she swims into the ocean - which is never a good idea in a movie about a rapacious shark - and gets chomped up by the titular creature. This scene is so full of misdirects and frightening imagery that it's embedded itself in our cultural consciousness since its release in 1975.
With its initial shark feasting, Jaws gives the audience exactly what they expect, and then turns the story on its head by refusing to address the jarring sequence in the following scene. The scene gives us a reason to be afraid and then spends the next act ratcheting up the tension with the implication that it could happen again. Spielberg is both giving and withholding in this masterful moment.
Even with the fairly gruesome incident, the audience never sees the shark, but we know it's there.
Actors: Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, John Searle, + more
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
She's on the poster, she's in the opening sequence, her name is even over the title on the film's poster - everyone thought Drew Barrymore was going to be the star of Scream. In the 13-minute scene that opens the film, Wes Craven plainly lays out how the once firm rules of horror aren't just out the window, they've been gutted and laid to rest on the front lawn.
Barrymore's single scene threatens to overshadow the film, and Craven takes relish in twisting the audience's expectations. Barrymore is so famous that the viewers are meant to think she would at least survive the first few minutes. But since Scream is one of the first notable films to break the genre, Craven has no qualms about defeating our anticipation right off the bat.
Actors: Drew Barrymore, Rose McGowan, Courteney Cox, Liev Schreiber, Neve Campbell, + more
Directed by: Wes Craven
Wes Craven is a director who knows how to use an opening scene to his advantage. In the inaugural A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven creates an ominous and surreal tone that the audience can't escape for the rest of the film. By opening the film with an oddly lit and strangely edited dream sequence, Craven is able to ramp up the unsettling nature of the story without having to explain himself.
Even though the audience spends the opening minutes with a character who won't make it beyond the first act, they also learn everything they need to know about the plot: There's a monster who lives in your dreams and uses your subconscious against you.
Actors: Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Lin Shaye, + more
Directed by: Wes Craven