Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween special: memorable slasher title sequences

One of the reasons why Jim Emerson's Opening Shots project is so essential is that it highlights the importance of atmosphere and mood in cinema. When seeing a movie, these affective states are established immediately, from the opening shot of a film through its expository scenes. Unlike other scenes, shots, or moments, there is something unique about the opening of a film, which probably has something to do with the idea that in the openings shots and scenes, the "world" of the film is being established. Every sight and sound is working toward the construction of a cinematic universe into which the viewer enters. And the amazing thing about opening scenes (like cinema itself) is that one can do practically anything with them, from establishing themes, characters, and locales, to forshadowing them. Sometimes these sequence are movies unto themselves, offering complexities wrapped in simplicity through the simple power of images and sounds. They have such power so as to manipulate the viewer into perceiving and interpreting particular things that will influence how she or he partakes in or understands the film's elements.

While Jim's project represents a rather thorough exploration of the endless possibilities of opening shots and how they connect to their respective films, there is another cinematic device (often consisting of many shots, or sometimes just one) that can build atmospheres and moods so effectively: the opening titles (or opening scene, if there are no titles). In the spirit of Halloween, ahead are a few of my favorite opening titles sequences from horror movies over the years. Since so many opening sequences from horror cinema stand out in my mind, I'll limit my selection for slasher movies for the sake of brevity and because the treasures of slasher movies are sometimes overlooked. So, without further pontificiation, here are some of my favorite slasher movie opening scenes:

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Perhaps the quintessential slasher title sequence is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Part of Hitchcock's intent with this film was to really manipulate audiences' sensibilities and expectations by torturing and twisting around accepting narrative structures. His famous remark about the film, saying that he "played the audience like a violin," all too accurately sums up the film. He relied not just on narrative and cinematic convention, confounding them and contorting them, but also the viewers' expectations of his own work. Hitchcock's most recent films (North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)) were wide-spanning stories, almost epic in their execution and thematic detail. Although they were stylistically distinct from one another, Hitchcock's direction in all of these films was enveloping and deeply focused on particular ideas. With Psycho, he wanted to provide the most simple, gritty version of the very same themes (i.e., guilt, murder) he'd been dealing with on a larger scale for quite some time. This comes through in the frantic opening title sequence, which resembles that of Vertigo and North By Northwest only in sense that it's visually conceptual and latent with the film's themes.

Although nothing happens in these moments from a narrative standpoint, one could argue that the entire movie is in this title sequence. Right away, the stark black and white image and the shrilling strings of Bernard Herrmann's score grab you, sweeping the viewer into a frenzy. As the countless perfectly sliced lines move up and down the screen, fading the titles in and out in the process, the string section -- the only section of the orchestra employed in the film's entire score -- harshly and violently chops along to the image, providing a sense that all the lines and titles are stabbing the viewer. But the thing about all the lines is that they are all even, perhaps suggesting the persistent, even chops that Norman unleashes on the poor, unsuspecting Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) midway through the film. After the "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" title appears, the lines then fade out the gray background to reveal an open shot of the city, the opening shot of the picture. The music comes to an abrupt end, transitioning from its climax of high strings to very low chords suggesting the guilt of the character we will soon be following.

The brilliance of this title sequence is while the film itself hasn't even started, Hitchcock works you into such a state just on the pure combination of images and music that the abrupt contrast to the rather subdued, even talky opening scenes is jarring and unsettling. What Hitchcock is doing, if course, is planting these sounds and images deep within the unconscious of the viewers, preparing them for what's to come but also manipulating their senses by jumping into a seemingly random story about a secret affair. It's a masterful sequence, one that has inspired films of all kinds over the last (almost) 50 years. Hitchcock's ability to play with narrative conventions, stylistic devices, and the psychological states of the film viewer gave him a unique perspective of the relationship between the viewer and the screen.

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

John Carpenter's Halloween is considered by many to be the next generation of Psycho. Where Psycho essentially created the slasher movie, Halloween gave it new life and spawned legions of imitators. Perhaps it is appropriate that its opening title sequence (among other things) has taken inspiration from the historic Hitchcock film. However, while the film has similaritites to Hitchcock's picture, it is its own unique entry in the horror genre, and no doubt one of the finest. Appropriately, the opening titles to Halloween are much more brooding and ominous than Hitchcock's slap-you-in-the-face style. That's due to the fact that Carpenter is not interested in incongruous juxtapositions or reflexivity. He is more interested in building and sustaining an atmosphere of dread set within small-town America, where a masked, implaccable villain terrorizes a community (not unlike the leviathan from another horror masterpiece, Jaws, a movie that owes much to Hitchcock). Every moment of Carpenter's film is building toward the showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers on Halloween night.

In the opening titles, Carpenter shoots a lone, plain-looking jack-o-lantern set amongst the black void, which calls attention to the mesmerizing flickering light within the pumpkin. The pumpin itself is on the left side of the shot, with the orange titles appearing alongside it on the right. As the camera zooms in closer to the pumpkin, the ordinary pumpkin seems to embody the evil that will soon overtake the small town of Haddonfield. As we get closer, the plainness of the face carved out of the pumpkin actually looks like Myers' mask. And what gives the scene that building effect is John Carpenter's now legendary electronic-based music, which takes a simple melody and compounds it, layering it with foreboding chords.

Like Psycho, this opening title sets the stage for the rest of the film, informing you that much lies in store without even showing you a single image other than this pumpkin. I have watched this film every Halloween for the last ten years or so, and it never loses its impact, which is partly due to the perfection of this title sequence. It sucks me in each time, pulling me into its nightmare long before Michael Myers is ever seen on film. While the movie conceals Michael through much of its running time (another tactic borrowed from Jaws), the marriage of the images and music in this title sequence invites you into simply mystery of the seemingly indestructible, reasonless beast that prowls the streets of small-town America wearing only a gray suit and a mask.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

Although the film is often mocked for its wise-cracking villain and infinite bad sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of most visually creative and out-and-out enjoyable horror movies that established Wes Craven as the near-legend he is now. While the film suffered from Craven's somewhat clunky dialogue and phony performances, which Craven would gradually tune over the course of his career, it stands out as pinnacle of the endless number of teen slasher pics from the 80's, and boasts quite a few terrifying dream sequences that rank among my favorite moments in horror cinema.

One of the best of these sequences is the film's opening scene, in which Freddy Krueger stalks a young teenage girl through an inferno-like labyrinth full of dripping pipes and endless dark hallways. The scene is very disorienting because it follows a close-up montage of a figure (presumably Freddy) putting together a glove with knives for fingers. Then, it abruptly cuts to this girl entering this maze, where she encounters sheep and hears a deep voice whose voices echoes throughout the chamber as he calls her name. The girl contrasts with her environment, embodying a youthful feminine innocence that Freddy will (quite literally) rape with his knife-fingers later in the film. From the outset, we never get the feeling that Freddy exists within a real time and space, but is everywhere, around every corner, behind every wall. Unlike the end of the film and in all of the sequels, Freddy is seemingly indestructible here, shot in shadow so as to accentuate the scarred, pulsating tissue on his face. But before the climax of murder, the film cuts away to the girl awakening from what we subsequently understand to be a nightmare.

As I mentioned already, the rest of the film doesn't live up to this sequence, which is common of a Craven film (as the next film I'll look at demonstrates as well). However, the movie offers several brilliantly realized scenes showcasing a nightmarish dreamworld wherein the line between reality and the dreamlines is ambiguous.

Despite its falling short just when it should be picking up (at the end) A Nightmare on Elm Street is an, atmospheric, intelligent, and well-structured slasher movie the likes of which is rarely captured nowadays. Its opening sequence will live within my mind for as long as I can still dream at night.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

Just 12 years later, Wes Craven had corrected his initial problems of directing actors and had already built his reputation as a master of horror. This enabled him to enter a more reflexive stage of his career, when he made "meta" horror movies like Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), by far the finest of all the Elm Street sequels. But one of his most accomplished and underrated films (despite its popularity) is the 1996 sensation, Scream, which satirized teen slasher comedies while simultaneously playing out as one.

One thing I love about Scream is its opening scene. After the Dimension logo and a very brief title announcing the film, it launches into a six or seven-minute scene starring Drew Barrymore as a defenseless teen, Casey Becker who is home alone. The sequence is the most powerful in the movie, and the most violent. It has Casey (Barrymore) taking calls from a movie-obsessed stalker who at first seems charming but slowly becomes quite terrifying. He first questions her about her favorite scary movies, to which she playfully and flirtatiously responds, feeling very secure. But soon the man alludes to seeing her from outside, and we are hit with the hard reality that she is in a defenseless position against a killer who will stop at nothing to kill her. After a tense moment in which he offers her a horror trivia for her life, the ghost-masked killer breaks into her house, prowls around as she hides and eventually chases her outside as the girl's parents arrive home.

As she is rather mercilessly slaughtered on her lawn, Craven interestingly manages to tap into many of the things Hitchcock was after with his suspense films. He presents a murder in extreme, unrelenting detail, as if to push the boundaries of what we will accept as pleasure. Craven wants to explore how much gore and blood we can take before it affects us and makes us violent. His killer has seen horror movies, internalized them, and is now bringing them to life. And while the scene itself is one of those prototypical horror scenes, Craven imbues it with an edge of realism. Part of what makes it work is Barrymore's earnest performance. When she runs and hides, we don't disbelieve her for a second. You can almost feel the cold rush of blood running through her body, both in disbelief but reacting as necessary. She fights valiantly, but the killer eventually straddles her squirming body and penetrates it with his knife over and over again. Where most horror movies will dump out and cut away after a quick death, Casey dies slowly and is hung to dry (again, literally) for her parents to see. Suddenly, we go from cliche horror to outright tragedy, and the scenes is played to perfection. By the end, it's hard not to be emotionally wrung outof the experience. I still remember sneaking into the theater to see this when I was 13 years old and being so wrenched by it, and by the experience of feeling rebelious (yes, that was rebelious for me at that age). It's just a movie, Craven asserts. And In a quick seven minute scene, he considers the implications of this mentality. The rest of the movie doesn't approach this genius and unnerving sequence, but its resonate nonetheless and represents fine slasher cinema.


Adam Ross said...

I love Jim's project, and this is a great Halloween post. I recently re-watched the "Halloween" opening (because I like to carve my jack-o-lantern that way, silly I know) and noticed that near the end of the sequence you can see what looks (to me at least) like a tear on the pumpkin's eye closest to the lens. Can't tell if it's intentional or not, but that's what I see.

I think it was brilliant of Carpenter to carve the pumpkin in such an ordinary way. Like the rest of the opening, it fits the film's tone perfectly.

Ted Pigeon said...

It's funny you should mention that, Adam. Just last night, I was carving a pumpkin, and I had that very same idea since I just finished writing about and then seeing that title sequence, I too wanted to carve mine like that. Since I was short on time, and those pesky trick-or-treaters wouldn't stop knocking at my door, I had to go with old reliable: the same demonic looking pumpkin face I've carved for years. I think this may be a project of mine next year though.

I'll have to look for that tear the next time I watch the film; I never noticed it before. I'm just amazed at how that sequence is so mesmerizing, being as simple as it is. Something about that ordinary face captures my eye; maybe it's just the music though.