It’s pretty traditional for horror movies to just be horror movies from the start. It’s what’s expected. Nobody would go into a horror movie expecting it to be something else. Traditionally, you have an opening stinger that sets up all of the terror to come. Everything we need to know about the tone and style of Halloween we get in that opening shot. Even most examples of slow burners like The Exorcist still set up enough in the beginning so that you know what’s going to happen. Most of the satanic elements are established in the opening scene. As John Landis has pointed out, the opening scene of Scream is really a master class in how to establish a nearly perfect, frightening opening to your horror feature.
But not every horror film is a horror flick right at the beginning. Sometimes, that can be better. Sometimes it’s great to really spend time with the characters before the terror kicks in. All of the other features I listed have character development, of course. This is much more a matter of playing with tone. It can be a hard thing to do, but supremely effective when pulled off properly.
The entries on this list all started off in a different genre. Some were dramas, science fiction, even family films, but—even though they took their time getting there—they all brought the horror exactly when they needed to, and brought it in spades.
Part of what makes Gremlins work so well is that it is a complete tonal roller coaster. It can be a lighthearted Amblin movie one moment, a slapstick comedy the next, and a horror the moment after that. It has enough of the third to earn a place in the genre, and I can definitely think of plenty who were legitimately terrified by it as a kid. But if you just look at the opening scenes, the film is really trying to establish itself as a traditional, Spielbergian family film. It’s not really until that suspenseful scene in which Billy’s mom is alone in the house with the hatched Gremlins that we truly see that element of horror for the first time.
People still tend to call this a “space drama” or “space opera” or just “a science fiction movie” instead of calling it horror, as if they only remember the plot up until the point when the alien actually shows up. Because that’s when you could legitimately call it a drama about people trying to survive in space. Up until the face hugger latches onto Kane, it’s got a very old-fashioned Fantastic Voyage feel made unique by the fact that these people are just blue collar workers and are treated so realistically. But that uniqueness is kicked up to 11 when the alien begins to stalk the long, heavily shadowed corridors of the ship and pick off the crew one by one.
Audition is a romantic comedy for a good chunk of its running time. I’ve even made the argument that it’s a romantic comedy once the element of horror kicks in too, albeit a very twisted one. We start off with a man who’s determined to find himself a new wife. His wife died years ago, he’s ready to move on, his son wants him to move on, so he decides it’s time. He uses the audition process of a movie to meet women, which is a pretty skeezy thing to do, but that’s neither here nor there—actually, it’s part of the whole point of the film. He meets Asami, who is shy and quiet and basically his dream girl. Of course, he’s not prepared for her level of obsession, nor is he prepared for how well she handles razor wire.
We’re talking about Cronenberg’s movie here. The ’86 version of The Fly handles its element of horror in a very interesting way. You could call it slow burn, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s science fiction, sure, but for that first half it’s really more of a romance than anything else. This is Cronenbergian romance, and it goes exactly as well as one might expect. We spend a lot of time with Brundle and Ronnie before Brundle actually transports himself through the machine and even then things don’t go badly right away. The transformation is slow and gradual, treated like a disease, and that’s where the element of body horror comes in.
From Dusk Till Dawn
As I’ve said before, From Dusk Till Dawn is incredibly impressive for the fact that it’s not a horror film for the entire first half. The only element of suspense comes through the character of Richie, but it’s very much a crime drama for the first big chunk of its running time. Then, right when we reach the hour mark, it’s total vampire chaos. But it manages to draw that out for as long as possible without making it feel, well, drawn out. That’s a large part of what makes From Dusk Till Dawn such a great viewing experience.
People tend to forget how late into Psycho that shower scene actually comes. At this point, everyone knows that Marion Crane is killed early on in the movie and what a controversial move it was to cast someone like Janet Leigh only to kill her off at the end of the first act. But part of what makes Psycho so superb is that we do spend a lot of time with Marion before that happens. The first chunk of the film is told entirely through her perspective and for that amount of time, it’s a totally different movie. It’s the story of a woman who steals a large sum of money to start a new life with her boyfriend and is immediately racked with guilt, planning to give the money back. This could easily have been its own kind of drama, and is treated as such. But then Marion checks into the Bates Motel and absolutely everything changes in an instant.