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The 20 Scariest Opening Scenes in Horror Movie History, Ranked

Scream your way through the most terrifying opening scenes in horror, as voted by a still-shaking Rotten Tomatoes staff.

by | April 9, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by © Universal, © Warner Bros., © Paramount, © Dimension Films)

Those who saw John Krasinski‘s A Quiet Place earlier this year surprised to hear that the director and his co-star and wife, Emily Blunt, recently told Rotten Tomatoes that Jaws is their favorite movie. Their new creature feature opens with a scene that shocks audiences in ways that echo the Spielberg film’s famous first scene, and even goes one step further, breaking one of the biggest rules of horror (and nope, we’re not saying which).

The scene was not in the original screenplay, say co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods; it was something Krasinski added himself in the rewrite phase. “I’ve got to give props to John for just being a crazy person,” says Beck. “I think he just really wanted, like, the opening of Jaws — let’s establish this monster right out the gate, and get really, really dark.” Woods adds: “You pull that on an audience and you instill this instinctual fear: These characters are fair game, so watch around every corner.”

Is it one of the scariest openings, ever, though? Time will tell — we need a few years and a lot of perspective to make those kinds of calls. For now, we at Rotten Tomatoes have voted on our favorite scary opening scenes up to now, and ranked them according to just how pinned-back-in-our seats we were the first time we saw them.


20. My Bloody Valentine (1981) 58%

(Photo by © Paramount)

This is Quentin Tarantino’s favorite slasher flick and it’s not hard to see why: It’s gruesome as hell. It’s set in a mining town, and the slasher wears a mining get-up and uses mining tools, which means a lot of inventive swinging pickaxes and nail-gun use (so much so that the MPAA had the filmmakers slice out 9 minutes of gore from the original cut). The opening is basic, over in barely two minutes, and may have suffered a touch because of those cuts. But its simplicity and directness is kind of the point: This film isn’t wasting any time, and it didn’t come to play.


19. Scream 2 (1997) 81%

How did director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson choose to up the ante on awesome openings in this sequel, which is actually slightly higher on the Tomatometer than the original? They showed us that original opening again, this time as a movie-within-the-movie (Stab!), starring Heather Graham as Casey Becker, who had been played in the original by Drew Barrymore. Confused? So is Jada Pinkett Smith’s Maureen, the actual victim of this super-meta opening. She just came out to see a dumb scary movie, and has no idea why her boyfriend has just stabbed her and the audience is doing absolutely nothing about it. Seriously, worst movie theater audience ever.


18. Final Destination (2000) 35%

(Photo by (c) New Line)

Movie rule #96: When a flight steward says it’s going to be fine, you can bet that it really, really isn’t. This opening set the standard for the rest of the Final Destination franchise, and was believed at the time to be inspired by the explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. Like the flight shown in the movie, that real-life 747 was on its way to Paris and carrying high school kids when it blew up shortly after takeoff.


17. Final Destination 3 (2006) 44%

(Photo by (c) New Line)

It’s hard to pick the best of the Final Destination openings — replace plane with car with roller coaster and so on and they’re essentially the same — but the Rotten Tomatoes staff votes have the third installment, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, nudging out the others. This time we’re at an amusement park, and the latest set of unlucky teenagers is killed (or not) on a roller coaster. It’s brilliantly staged, zeroing in on virtually every “could it happen?” thought that runs through your mind when strapping into a fast-moving ride: Will the wheels come loose? What if my seat lock comes undone? The film’s Devil’s Flight roller coaster was actually a ride called the Corkscrew in Playland in Vancouver, which was made to look higher — and much deadlier — in post-production.


16. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) 89%

Nothing really happens in the opening few minutes of Tobe Hooper’s infamous low-budget 1974 horror flick, and yet rarely has a movie evoked so much dread so quickly. There’s that (rather long) text scroll, laying out the movie’s “maybe-based-on-a-true-story” credentials, and then those camera flashes, shocking us to life with grisly images of decomposing eyes and other bits and bobs. Finally, Hooper pans out to reveal a ghastly, barely-human sculpture sat upon a grave marker. Fun fact: The Narrator is none other than John Larroquette, who has said he was paid for his efforts with a marijuana joint.


15. 28 Weeks Later (2007) 72%

While 28 Days Later opens in an empty London, its sequel begins in a packed house somewhere in the countryside. We’re quickly introduced to the occupants, a sweet-seeming family and a Walking Dead-style crew of likable survivors. And then all hell breaks loose. It’s not just that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo throws everything at the scene — “name” actors bite it, Scream-style, and kids are in no way off limits — that makes it such a gut punch. It’s the way the filmmakers upend expectations, particularly when it comes to our “hero”, played by Robert Carlyle. With each choice he makes, he reveals himself to be anything but a Rick Grimes. And frankly, when the dust settles, we’re leaning #TeamZombie.


14. Jeepers Creepers (2001) 46%

Did you know Victor Salva’s monster flick is based on a true story? Well, the opening scene, in which the Creeper gets into his truck to tail two kids who catch him dumping a victim, was inspired by one. In 1990, Ray and Marie Thornton were driving on a Michigan road when they spotted Dennis DePue dumping what looked like a body behind an abandoned schoolhouse (it turned out to be his wife). In their court testimony, the Thorntons said that DePue proceeded to follow them in his van for miles.


13. Stranger in the House (1974) 71%

(Photo by (c)Warner Bros.)

Scream and When A Stranger Calls may have horror-dom’s most famous problem callers, but Black Christmas’s pervy “moaner” is a close runner-up. The film’s opening sequence meanders a little, lurching from one cliché (stalker cam!) to another (hiding in the closet!), with detours into calls with mom and a bit of bathroom boozing. But when the sorority sisters circle around the phone to listen to the stalker — who goes from static-y groans to screechy vulgarities that we won’t repeat here — it’s as transfixing as it is disturbing.


12. The Stepfather (1987) 88%

(Photo by ©New Century Vista Film)

Sometimes seeing the aftermath of a horrible act can be even more terrifying than witnessing the act itself. The opening sequence of The Stepfather is a case in point. With each shot we’re given an awful little breadcrumb clue to what has just happened in this bland-looking suburban home. There’s the blood on Terry O’Quinn’s face. An out-of-place toy boat. A dial tone. And then… We won’t give it away. Director Joseph Ruben would go on to make more chillers in this vein — including Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Sonbut none would come close to creating moments as chilling as The Stepfather’s (very) cold open.


11. Piranha (1978) 69%

(Photo by ©New Century Vista Film)

A couple decides to go skinny dipping at night and it ends badly thanks to something bite-y in the water. Sound familiar? There is a lot that sounds and looks familiar about this Roger Corman-produced answer to Spielberg’s Jaws. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun in its own right — and memorable. A bunch of the Rotten Tomatoes staff saw this one when they were kids, and the opening scene left a mark.


10. Ghost Ship (2002) 16%

(Photo by (c) Warner Bros.)

What’s worse than an iceberg — right ahead? A wire, right onboard. In the best part of this pretty mediocre movie, almost an entire ship’s worth of passengers is wiped out in one fell swoop when a wire snaps and slices across a dance floor packed with revelers. It takes the well-dressed folk a few seconds to realize they’ve all been cut in halves and quarters and thirds (depending on height), and when they do, the makeup department goes to work. Side note: The little girl who survives (she was just short enough to escape) is Emily Browning.


9. The Witch (2015) 90%

Robert Eggers’ unnerving opening plays on every parent’s — or babysitter’s — greatest fear: A child that vanishes the second you look away. Here, a game of peak-a-boo takes a dark turn when Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) baby brother disappears and is then seen in the clutches of a witch. Said witch is then doing something to the baby that we can’t quite make out until… wait, is that a knife?


8. 28 Days Later (2002) 87%

How exactly did Danny Boyle film in a completely empty — and completely eerie — central London? He had some help from his then teenage daughter, it turns out. Boyle has explained that in lieu of traffic marshals and police, which he couldn’t afford, his daughter and her friends tried to hold back traffic during the seven early mornings over which they shot the sequence.


7. Carrie (1976) 93%

High school is terrifying, and rarely has it been as terrifying as in the opening sequence of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The film is no conventional horror flick, and the scene is no conventional horror opening, but its mark is indelible: Just try to wipe the image of a screaming Sissy Spacek begging for help from your memory.


6. Dawn of the Dead (2004) 76%

Online snarks have said that Dawn of the Dead’s opening seven minutes were the peak of director Zack Snyder’s career. Frankly, they’d be the peak of most directors’ careers as far as we’re concerned. In the absolutely brutal sequence, Sarah Polley’s Ana wakes to discover her neighbor’s daughter is a ravenous zombie (the fast-moving 28 Days Later kind) who isn’t making any sort of distinctions between family and food. Eyes out for the “Here’s Johnny!” nod and ears out for the excellent use of Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” over the killer credit sequence. [Editor’s note: This story originally said that Ana woke to find her own daughter was a zombie — we have corrected, and regret, the error.]


5. It Follows (2014) 96%

It Follows opens with an almost two-minute tracking shot that coldly observes a young girl running for her life on an idyllic suburban street. We eventually join her as she gets in her car and later find her next alone on a beach. Cut to… well, just watch it. There are no big scares or jumps or monsters in these few minutes. The key horror here is mystery: Why is she running? What is she running from? And what the hell did that to her?


4. Halloween (1978) 96%

(Photo by © Compass International Pictures)

John Carpenter told Rotten Tomatoes recently that you have two options for opening a horror film: “You can slow things down, lull people into a false sense of security, and then smack them in the face with it,” or “kick it into gear straight away — let’s go!” For 1978’s Halloween, he went with the latter approach, opening with a stalker-cam single shot that took him and his crew some eight hours to execute. Carpenter says he was inspired by long tracking shots in films like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.


3. It (2017) 86%

Director Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s It doesn’t open with Georgie and Pennywise’s drain-side chat — it begins instead with the disappearance of a little girl and a memorably abandoned tricycle — but it does get to the scene eventually. When the moment does come, Wallace plays it TV safe: We see Tim Curry’s clown bearing his teeth and advancing on his victim before we cut to the next scene. Andy Muschietti takes the road less traveled in his treatment of the scene, which opens 2017’s It, showing Pennywise’s attack on poor Georgie in all of its gory glory. Yes, that’s a child getting his arm chomped off — and Muschietti isn’t letting us look away.


2. Scream (1996) 79%

Wes Craven’s big comeback film kicked off a slasher revival and gave the horror genre one of its most famous lines (“What’s your favorite scary movie?”). Most of that was thanks to the opening scene, penned by horror fanatic Kevin Williamson, which plays out like a mashup of Jeopardy and the last half hour of Halloween. It was always going to be a nerve-shattering ten minutes; what made it more than that was the casting of Ghostface’s first big target, Casey Becker. Craven said he wanted to have the film’s biggest star die straight out the gate, and had considered offering the role to Alicia Silverstone. But when Drew Barrymore, who was set to take the lead role, said she wanted to do the opening scene, the plan changed and Craven had his “No they didn’t!” moment.


1. Jaws (1975) 98%

It took a lot of innovating to pull what is arguably cinema’s most famous opening together: Actress and stuntwoman Susan Blacklinie had hooks attached to her Levi’s so that drivers could pull her to and fro to get that jerked-by-a-Great-White effect; Spielberg employed a devastatingly effective predator’s-eye view to put us inside the hungry mind of the shark; and John Williams’ score did the rest of the work. The scene was a direct lift from the opening pages of Peter Benchley’s bestselling book. In those pages, the reader — like Spielberg’s camera — mostly inhabits the perspective of the beast (the opening line reads, “The great fish moves silently through the night.”). On page, the opening scene is as brutal and mysterious an attack as on screen. “At first, the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood,” writes Benchley. “There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg. She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand.” Then comes the kicker: “She could not find her foot.”


Which scary opening scene is your favorite? Don’t see it on the list? Are you about to write us an angry letter asking how in Samara’s name we could leave out The Ring? Save the postage, and let us know what you think in the comments. 

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