The state of the opening credits sequence in cinema today saddens me. I fear many viewers growing up with modern cinema have little sense of the power of those title screens to draw the viewer out of the native world, and prepare them for immersion into the diegesis.
So, for those old folks like me who get a little nostalgic for that magic, or for a younger crowd who aren’t as familiar with the strange alchemy of the traditional opening credits sequence, here’s a little peek at a few of the all-time greats.
In a touch one would be stunned to see today, the movie opens with one of the cast members, Edward Van Sloan, stepping out from behind a curtain to warn the audience of the shocks to come. “I think it will thrill you; it may shock you; it might even horrify you,” Van Sloan informs us.
The image fades to black, the music rises, and we are shown the title of the movie over a drawing of great, menacing eyes casing beams of light from over an ambiguous horizon, while clawed hands reach out for us. These images have no specific context, and don’t represent any character in the movie, they are simply a signal of the weirdness to come.
We’re then treated to further credits over a depiction of a bald, monstrous, staring face – very much akin to Nosferatu’s Graf Orlok, and, again, totally unrelated to anyone in Frankenstein – superimposed over a rotating collection of disembodied eyes.
And, within the cast list, one name – that of the actor playing The Monster – is rendered as a question mark.
The first time viewer has no idea what horrors to expect, but is well primed for the dark, the twisted, the grotesque.
Horror of Dracula (1957)
The bold, ominous strains of James Bernard’s Dracula theme are a good match to the low-angle shot of a menacing stone bird as great big, red letters announce that this is a Hammer Film Production. Next comes Peter Cushing’s name, reminding the audience that this is a vehicle for the man who starred in the previous year’s Curse of Frankenstein.
The next card varied depending upon whether the movie was being shown in the U.S. or England. Americans got the title Horror of Dracula, in the largest letters yet. In the film’s native country, however, it was simply called Dracula, and the title was rendered in a bit more style.
As the credits progress, the camera moves around that bird, giving a great sense of depth and texture to the statue and the surrounding architecture, then pans away to find the entrance to a crypt. Dissolving into that crypt, the image pushes in on a coffin labeled “Dracula.” And then, from no visible source, blood begins to drip onto the name.
This final image has no logic place within the narrative, nor is it a necessary part of the credits, since the title has already appeared. It is there to announce to the audience, much as Van Sloan did at the top of Frankenstein, exactly what kind of movie this is to be. This is to be a movie of red blood.
Bernard Herrmann’s urgent music surges up as Saul Bass’s animated title sequence tears its way onto the screen, all straight lines merging together to push words into place, and then separating to dissect and destroy those words.
Even before the title, the first thing we are given is the name Alfred Hitchcock. Then comes Psycho, and with this word the letters dance jaggedly apart before being torn asunder by a burst of vertical lines. This is to be a movie with edge, a movie of broken minds.
A final wave of lines dissolves into the cityscape, and the narrative begins calmly, quietly… but we know that all is not calm or quiet. There is chaos impending.
Spider Baby (1964)
First, an animated spider’s web fills the screen, and the production company credits appear at its center. We zoom in on it and dissolve…
A loud, hoarse laugh sounds out – the voice of star Lon Chaney, Jr. – as the title Spider Baby fills the screen.
Ronald Stein’s bizarre, comically ominous music finally begins as words and cartoonish images begin to pop playfully onto the screen. This, we now learn, is actually The Maddest Story Ever Told. Over a series of these silly renderings of the film’s cast and setting, Chaney’s voice continues as he talk-sings to us about the types of spooky things we can expect to see. “A ghost on the stair, a vampire’s bite/better beware; there’s a full moon tonight.”
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)
For someone who specialized in the dark and the gothic, Mario Bava was also an incredibly playful filmmaker. In Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Sante Maria Romitelli’s oddly romantic score hints as the sadness of the tale about to play out, but the viewer is offered no hint of how that corresponds to the images over which it plays out.
As a child, Bava had been fascinated by the potassium cyanide and hyposulfate his father, Eugenio, worked with in his photographic lab. So, for this movie, so concerned with childhood and nostalgia, Bava animated the titles himself, recreating that visual effect of colorful powders pouring side by side and intermingling.
Red and blue powders play together on the screen, giving shape to, distorting, and destroying images of the faces of the main cast.
The technique itself cannot have had the same nostalgic resonance for the audience as it did for Bava himself, but those feelings are somehow evoked nonetheless by the way that faces are allowed to dissipate like memories.
Yeah, along with Psycho, this is one that was just obviously gonna make the list.
John Carpenter’s driving, unnerving musical motif, the way that the light of the candle inside that jack o’lantern fades up and then flickers, threatening us with the darkness, a zoom in so gradual that at first it’s almost imperceptible, but eventually we are in so close that all we can make out is one eyehole, the shell of the pumpkin completely obscured.
And then the light goes out, and it is time for the horror to commence.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978)
Released the same month as Halloween, this one also involves vegetation. But, while we were drawn gradually nearer to that pumpkin, here the tomatoes come to us, hurtling towards the screen and splattering with the impact.
But that’s not the first thing we see. No, first we are treated to stark white letters on a black screen which describe the way people laughed at Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and the 1975 invasion of a small town by 7 million black birds. “No one is laughing now,” we are told.
Then comes the opening scene, in which an unsuspecting woman’s household chores are interrupted by an animated tomato making bizarre gurgling noises.
The woman’s scream leads us into the credits, and, as the first tomato splats against the lens, the title comes up.
Like Spider Baby before it, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! treats us to a theme song. “They’re marching down the halls; they’re crawling up the walls,” we’re told. We even find out that the singer’s own sister has been eaten by the tomatoes!
Eventually, the screen is full of tomato gunk, and it is time for the fun to begin.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
First, there is only silence, and a disclaimer informing us that everything we are about to see is true. That fades out, and we find ourselves at the Uneeda Medical Supply wearhouse. It is 5:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time on July 3, 1984.
After more than eight minutes of some of the most graceful exposition and serio-comic character establishment in the history of film, most viewers have perhaps forgotten that there has not yet been an opening credits sequence.
But then Frank smacks the side of that ominous container of 245 Trioxin, gas pours forth, our apparent lead characters collapse, and the credits being.
When the oxygen hits the grotesque corpse inside the canister, its flesh begins to liquefy, and the title of the movie is splattered across the screen in bright red, rebellious letters.
As the credits roll on, we follow the gas , which becomes the driving narrative forces. We track it out of the basement, up the vents; we follow the pipes as the gas finds its way to another corpse. And then that corpse twitches to life, and the movie has begun.
The narrative opens en media res. The brief prologue is little more than an explosion of climactic violence, culminating in a man’s eyes bursting inside his head. It is all straight-faced, urgent, grotesque. And then Herbert West, accused of killing his professor, turns straight to the camera as he issues his denial: “I gave him life.”
Cut to black.
As Richard Band’s music rises, ripe with playful allusion to the Psycho theme, words drift towards and away from the screen. As an all-white “H.P. LOVECRAFT’S” moves away, it crosses paths with the glowing, unnatural green of “RE-ANIMATOR.”
The cast and crew’s names, all in white, drift among a sea of multi-colored, almost neon reproductions of illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy. This movie is graphic and gruesome, we are promised, but also colorful, fun, and self-aware. We are invited to join the filmmakers in their tongue-in-cheek revelry.
Again, we have a pre-credits sequence. In capsule form, we see the day of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman): he gets dressed, investigates a murder – among uncaring peers – and then goes to bed. We learn that he is one week from retirement, as we meet his incoming replacement, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt).
And then, as Somerset puts himself to sleep with the rhythmic beat of a metronome, we cut to black.
The jagged, jittery credits flash among tight shots of pages in a notebook, writing, cutting, collage. Words blacked out – words to which someone objects. But we don’t know whose objections these are. We are seeing into the mind of a killer, but we do not yet know who he is, nor whom he will kill. The story to come is playing out before us, but we don’t know how to interpret it.
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