Friday, April 26, 2013

Ten Terrifying and Terrific Title Sequences

Setting the mood has a lot to do with what makes a great horror movie great. The viewer may have to be eased into the unsettling atmosphere as if it’s a chilly bath or thrown in to the terror as if it’s an inferno (because when you see a burning building, you should always push someone into it). Sometimes it’s cagiest to sucker punch viewers with a sequence out of tone with the rest of the film or let them know up front that guffaws are in store with a light-hearted approach. Or in at least one of the following cases, you may need to put some extra effort into your opening titles sequence because the rest of your movie sucks.


1. Frankenstein (1931)

Dracula was the first great sound horror film, but though its use of the “Scene 10 Moderato from Swan Lake is so memorable that the piece has been used as horror shorthand in films such as The Mummy and Black Swan, the music plays out over the Batman insignia, which isn’t too scary. Universal did a better job of getting a title sequence right with its follow up to Tod Browning’s film. After Edward Van Sloan gives his equally corny and creepy opening monologue, Bernhard Kaun’s brassy score shudders forth. On screen we see a clawed monster, most dissimilar to Karloff’s flathead, reaching from the darkness. This cuts to a leering portrait of, presumably, the title doctor, who once again looks nothing like the actor who will play him in the film that follows. Around Dr. Frankenstein’s head, disembodied eyes swirl, both foreshadowing the sundry body parts that will constitute the monster and mirroring the many eyes of the audience watching him from the darkened theater. The monster’s credit is equally memorable, as he is named only with a large question mark, recalling his similar crediting in the first stage production of Frankenstein 108 years earlier.

2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Seventeen years after Frankenstein, Universal gave in to playing its main monster for laughs. For a picture such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an opening as eerie as the 1931 one wouldn’t do at all. So Universal reached into its sack of associates and pulled out Walter Lantz, who’d produced the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series for the studio from 1928 to 1938. Lantz is best known for cracking up audiences with his creation, Woody Woodpecker, and the style of those classic cartoons is instantly recognizable in the credits sequence of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which begins with the monster raising skeletal Bud and Lou from their coffins before introducing the menagerie of monsters in iconic silhouettes. I could watch an entire movie of this credits sequence.
3. Psycho (1960)

Saul Bass is the only title designer who has become a household name, and not just because of that “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer thinks Salman Rushdie has been hiding out at his gym under the pseudonym Sal Bass (“He just replaced one fish with another, Jerry!”). Bass’s poster designs for films such as The Shining, Vertigo, and Anatomy of a Murder are as unforgettable as the credits sequence he masterminded for Psycho. Abetted by Bernard Hermann’s jittery score, Bass indicates all the violence and disjointed psychology to follow by slashing the screen with straight lines from every direction and cracking up the title and credits. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

4. Repulsion (1965)

Saul Bass’s Psycho sequence is a symphony of constant movement. Maurice Binder’s title sequence for the similarly psychologically fractured Repulsion is all about stillness. Catherine Deneuve had to remain completely still while Roman Polanski shot her eye in a tight close-up reminiscent of Bass’s Vertigo titles. Polanski says he was more inspired by the slicing-up-eyeballs scene in Un Chien Andalou, and he had Binder end his design by having Polanski’s name slice across Deneuve’s eye in tribute. Before that disturbing denouement, the credits drift up from her lower lid, over her lens, and up into her upper lid to unsettling effect. A single drum heartbeats on the soundtrack in another stark contrast to the chaotically musical opening of Psycho.

5. Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)

From the quietly disturbing to the unapologetically silly, the title sequence of Jack Hill’s cult horror-comedy Spider Baby looks like something from a Halloween special for pre-schoolers. Simplistic illustrations of smiling faces, howling puppy dogs, dopey kids, a waving goofus in overalls, and of course, spiders, pop across the screen as star Lon Chaney, Jr., bellows the daffy theme song. Although Spider Baby is a lot of fun, its fun is much nastier than these kiddie kredits indicate, making them subversive enough to balance the saccharine images EIP designed.

6. Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Here at the halfway mark we digress from the classic movies that precede and follow for a real piece of shit. Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee is an awful Witchfinder General knock-off that wastes Vincent Price amidst dullness and totally off-putting rape scenes. Yet one thing nearly redeems this terrible, terrible film: a brilliant title sequence designed by Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s signature whimsical cut outs flutter, glare, and crack like eggs. Although the intended effect was presumably creepy, it’s hard not to find it hilarious after seeing his similar work for Monty Python. Tune in for this fantastic sequence and bag the rest of the flick.

7. Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg establishes a key facet of Jaws in his opening title sequence. A shark’s pov camera races across the ocean floor as John William’s incessant theme consumes the soundtrack. We make the connection instantly: that music means the great white is on the hunt, which will be a necessary clue later in the film when an unscored panic on the beach turns out to be the work of a couple of kids with a cardboard dorsal fin. More importantly, Spielberg begins a film that wants us on the side of its human protagonists by placing us in the body and robotic brain of his antagonistic shark. We look out through its doll’s eyes as it restlessly roams the sea, and for a moment we understand the monster. It’s just a little hungry.

8. Carrie (1976)

Whereas Spielberg invited us to empathize with his killing machine, Brian De Palma has always been a lot more interested in straight-up voyeurism. The opening credits of his horrific high school melodrama Carrie cuts from the title character getting guff from her gym classmates for missing the ball in a volleyball game to a veritable soft-core scene in which these “schoolgirls” (none of whom look younger than twenty-eight) whip each other with towels in the nude in leering slow motion. The effect is pervy, but also hazy and ethereal, like a teen’s wet dream. Pino Donaggio’s muzak score adds to the unnaturalness and cheesiness of the sequence until the peeping tom lens settles on that figure of derision, Carrie White. We get a lingering view of her in apparent ecstasy as she washes away her recent shame under the hot water. But then, with a trickle of menstrual blood, the humiliation returns ten fold as Carrie shrieks in terror of her own body and her classmates point, laugh, and shriek her to “plug it up.” It is a title sequence alternately erotic, unnatural, comic, shocking, and cruel— a perfect encapsulation of the film that follows.

9. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s title sequence for Halloween is just as perfect as Carries even as it tells us nothing about the film aside from the setting. Carpenter makes the two most overly familiar holiday tropes— a palette of black and orange and a jack-o-lantern—freshly frightening with the depth of the screen’s blackness, the slow dolly-in on the glowing pumpkin,  and his own relentless score.

10. Alien (1979)

The credits sequence of Alien has only slightly more action than that of Halloween. The camera glides through an otherworldly skyscape beneath Jerry Goldsmith’s sinisterly minimalistic score. Above, cryptic symbols appear, building line by line until forming the title, much as the creature we see born and built to towering, terrifying adulthood forms in the movie.
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