Survival is obviously the goal for all characters in a slasher movie, but understanding that the slasher’s kills come in stages is equally as important. Their first kill will always be the most deadly. Whether it’s an adolescent Michael Myers stabbing his own sister in the original Halloween, or Ghostface toying with Drew Barrymore for the opening minutes of Scream, a killer’s first kill is typically flashier and more theatrical than the rest of their spree.
The brutality of first kills is reflective of the typical process of learning. Let’s say fighting off Freddy Kreuger was like learning to ride a bike. The first few times are going to be ugly, and over quickly. But slowly, each attempt will become longer and more complex as you learn more about the method. What differentiates a “first girl” from a “final girl” is nothing but experience with a little bit of luck.
Contrast Scream’s cat and mouse opening with the hysterics of its finale. We start by seeing Ghostface in total control of the situation and his prey and end with a 30+ minute meltdown inside a house party where the killer(s) reveal themself to Sidney (Neve Campbell) and face the greatest opposition yet en route to the police arriving at the scene.
That being said, there’s a reason we remember Scream’s opening above all. Barrymore’s scene is the poster child for the iconic slasher movie opening kill; simultaneously launching a 30+ year career and an all-time horror satire in the process. In an alternate universe, the history of “first girls” would be equally if not more relevant than the glamorous “final girl” schtick found in slasher movies with one female character surviving until the end before a climactic confrontation with the killer.
The “final girl” club is headlined by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in Halloween. If there was ever any doubt as to the prestige of the “final girl” club, Curtis is reprising her role in the upcoming Halloween Kills 43 years after her first appearance in the franchise.
These club discussions bring about the hottest debate to reach the internet since that stupid gold dress a few years back.
Is Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane a “first girl” or a “final girl” in Psycho?”
Marion is the object of Norman Bates’ attention and technically the first person killed on-screen. However, the iconic shower death scene doesn’t happen until about halfway through the film, thus denying her entry to the “first girl” club on a technicality. Maybe she exists in some sort of second-act horror movie limbo. Maybe she still exists in the trunk of that 1957 Ford at the bottom of a swamp.
Scream’s intro does everything a first kill should do.
- Sets a tone for the film that’s consistent throughout
- Establishes the killer’s abilities and limitations
- Sells the killer as unstoppable and unpredictable
Scream serves as a perfect baseline for most basic horror movie tropes, with a noticed lack of real motivation for the killer. This isn’t uncommon to find in slasher movies. The film even lays it out itself with the eventual psychopath Billy Loomis’ quote, “Have sex, you die. Take drugs, you die.”
This darkly ironic preachy mentality is found in most slasher films of the 20th century, with the killers operating on a pseudo-moral high ground above their victims. As such, the first kills are forced to embody an exaggerated form of deviancy to compel the killer to lash out. The films don’t have time to build up a character for the first kills. You see who they are, you see how they die. Their inadvertent breaking of one of the killer’s standards is inferred.
With that being said, the only way to attempt at ensuring safety in a slasher movie is to consciously avoid compromising situations or relationships. This isn’t a foolproof strategy, but know that your odds of survival increase after each kill, with the possibility of last-second saves or escapes growing more likely as the hypothetical movie progresses. Nobody ever makes it out alive in the first act, so making it past the initial wave of kills is paramount.
In a broader filmmaking sense, a horror movie’s first kill can often make or break the film. It’s impossible to take and hold an audience’s attention if your primary antagonist doesn’t come off as frightening, unstoppable, or morbidly “cool” in their first appearance. In 1988, Child’s Play was able to make audiences fear a ginger-haired doll with the least threatening name possible, “Chucky”. I’d attribute a great amount of the now decades-long franchise’s success with its tight and strangely agoraphobic introduction.
During Chucky’s first kill, we never see or hear from him whatsoever. All that’s seen is a woman’s acknowledged unfounded fear of her surroundings before a hammer is driven through her eye socket, causing her to plunge from a six-story window onto a parked car below. The film cleverly moves on from the death, leaving us in total suspense as to who or what killed the woman, and how.
That opening instantly hooks the viewer into an otherwise silly premise, which unfortunately spawned years of horrible sequels. Instances like these have created the culture of filmmaking that prioritizes nailing one or two scenes in a two-hour film, and banking on the quality of those two alone for the entirety of the film’s promotion.
If you can remember, think of the 2016 Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence sci-fi flop, Passengers. The entire movie was marketed on the basis of one zero-gravity water scene. Full disclosure, the scene does live up to the hype as best as it could. But being one of the only people that actually saw Passengers, most audiences weren’t fooled by its one-dimensional promotional strategy.
For better or worse, knocking a small part of a film out of the park rather than making a complete and coherent feature has become the modern technique. We can blame the classic slasher movies of years past, or we can thank them for normalizing maximum effort in at least one aspect of a movie. Regardless, this culture will always exist within horror with the standard plot formatting lending itself to the genre more than others.
The first 20 minutes of a horror film are the single most impactful period in any movie a person could make. There’s nothing we can determine about why people are picked to die first. But the understanding of its inevitability could lead us to surviving more often and creating better movies in the process.
In an effort to make up for my lack of findings in the research for this piece, here are two mostly irrelevant anecdotes about my movie fandom and obsessive desire to rank.
- I found a signed Janet Leigh autobiography about her time on the Psycho set for $2 at a bookstore one time. The signature was made out to a man named Tony. Apparently, Tony took the opportunity to flip that priceless moment into what was probably less than 50 cents, and in turn it into a priceless moment for me to find a random Janet Leigh autograph at a hole-in-the-wall bookstore in Fort Worth.
- After doing all the research for this piece, I felt that I had to compile my top 5 opening kills in horror films. It could probably be inferred by the volume of mentions each film has in the article, but the list must exist.
4. Child’s Play
5. Happy Death Day (each kill is technically the first, so top 5 on volume alone)