Friday, October 29, 2010

The Ten Best Horror TV Title Sequences in History

In the past several years, lengthy title sequences and even theme songs have gone the way of the Dodo in television.  In other words, they are becoming extinct.  As commercial time cuts deeper into story time (the average "hour" length show is now just about 40 minutes...), there's apparently little time for the luxury of a really good title sequence.

This trend is unfortunate and certainly a bit sad, because a good title sequence reveals everything the audience needs to understand about a given TV program.  The short, usually punchy montage of music and imagery can create a powerful mood, a feeling or vibe.  A good title sequence "primes" you for the adventure or storytelling to come.  It also brands the series in a permanent and unforgettable way.  Who can think of Star Trek without the Alexander Courage theme song?  Or the 1960s Batman? Or the original Hawaii 5-0?  Or Get Smart?  Or Mission: Impossible?

These facts are especially true in the horror genre, where success is dependent on crafting and sustaining an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. 

I wrote in my book, Terror Television: American TV Series, 1970-1999 that horror television has it hard anyway because it seeks to blend a homogenized, mass entertainment venue (television) with heightened, discomforting emotions.  In other words, horror and the medium of television are at odds.  Horror seeks spiky, uncertain heights.  Television wants to sell you a car, or a cheeseburger, and therefore make you feel good.

But given these difficulties, there have been a surprising number of truly great horror show title sequences over the years.  These are my personal choices for the ten finest; though there are many other  fantastic examples too.  Not all of these will be popular choices, but I'll endeavor to explain each of my selections.

Again, your mileage may vary.

10. Beyond Reality (1991 - 1993)

Okay, so this is an ultra-cheap USA Network series that was shot in Canada and starred Shari Belafonte  and Carl Marotte.  But the subject of the series is parapsychology, and the hidden, even buried "psychic" capabilities of the human race in the modern, high-tech age.   The title sequence is lensed in dark night, and the camera prowls a modern metropolis at an extreme low-angle so that the mirrored skyscrapers look even more enormous...and menacing.  Then we pan across windswept, rain-swept avenues, as though searching for the "buried," ancient qualities of the human brain.  As the title sequence goes on and on -- and a drumbeat plays in Fred Molli's composition -- it becomes ever more Twilight Zon-ish, but also seems to "find" the psychic qualities it seeks, in  human hands, for instance; even in a human baby.  Weird and wild, the content of this title montage colorfully reflects the content of the series itself. a

9. Dark Skies (1996 - 1997)

Coming in at number nine is the soon-to-be-released cult series from the 1990s, Dark Skies.  Watching these credits, you realize that this series -- which focuses on an alien conspiracy inside the U.S. government, -- was ahead of its time by about a decade-and-a-half.  Right now, we're living in Conspiracy America, with a fear of secret agendas everywhere..or at least on Fox News .  But this title sequence is so good because it depicts a kind of an "evil wind" blowing across a rippling American flag; buffeting it, a reflection of the urgent warning (and narration) from series lead Eric Close that "we may not live through the nineties" and that "history as we know it is a lie."  The  imagery begins with a perfect view of a man and a woman in a kind of Camelot-styled, 1960s environment (before the U.S. Capitol Building) but then a ticker races from the 1960s through 1998.  The urgent notion heightened by the fast score from Michael Hoenig and Close's line reading?   We may be running out of history.  And fast.  The enemy is already here.

8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)

She is not your traditional damsel in distress.  Nor is she your traditional vampire slayer.  And this infectious tune from Nerfherder reminds viewers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of these facts.  We start with traditional visual and audio elements of the horror genre: a wolf baying at the moon, a look at a gravestone, but then the rock beats kicks in and shatters tradition and expectation, just like Sarah Michelle Gellar's iconic hero.  The title montage takes us from horror convention to horror trail-blazing and does so with a jaunty sense of fun and pace that lets the audience know it is in for a good time.

Alas, you'll have to take my word on this one.  No official Buffy title sequences (except fan-made ones) available on YouTube today.  Instead, I just put up the song, so you have to kind of imagine the imagery (or stick in a DVD...).

7. Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977 - 1978)

This is a forgotten, short-lived anthology from the disco decade, but one with a great and memorable title sequence.  It opens with quick-cuts of an eyeball, to a fast, jazzy, addictive tune.  Then, trippily, we start to see horror images inside the rotating eyeball as the song's pace gets faster and more intense.  Before long, we're bracing quick cut views of horror staples like haunted houses, black cats, graveyards, snakes and the like.  The whole thing skates by with its sense of extreme pace, and quick cuttting.  David Shire wrote the pacey theme song that accompanies the trippy imagery.

 6. Kolchak: the Night Stalker (1974 - 1975)

This series from the age of Woodward and Bernstein is all about the little guy fighting City Hall; in this case a dedicated journalist fighting monsters in 1970s urban Chicago.  Given the theme of a "man alone" fighting monsters (and city bureaucracy too...), the title sequence displays Kolchak (Darren McGavin) alone in his office, whistling a happy tune and getting down to the task of writing.  It's very...intimate.  But as Kolchak clacks away at his typewriter and the word "victim" appears on the paper before him, the tune begins to turn darker and and more sour.  The clock stops.  We get a fast zoom, and then Kolchak turns to his side, as if seeing something monstrous out of the corner of his eye.  We freeze frame, going into the corner of his eye, actually.  Like the series itself, this title is surprisingly idiosyncratic and unusual.  Very memorable.

5. Tales from the Darkside (1984-1988)

Simplicity can also be elegance.  That's the case in this ultra-creepy title sequence for the low-budget 1980s Laurel anthology, Tales from the Darkside.  We start with cloudy skies, and then simply gaze at these lovely pastoral views of nature as a macabre-sounding narrator warns us that there is another world too; one that we don't see.  One just as real as these pastoral worlds, "but not as brightly lit, ...a darkside"  If that bit of flowery voice-over doesn't give you goosebumps, nothing will.

 4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970 - 1973)

We're endlessly falling through successive realities here, both gazing at ghoulish works of arts, and seemingly being gazed upon by really creepy old crones (whose faces appear distorted and horrible).  The Night Gallery intro represents a fast, endless series of alternate worlds, all represented by paintings of different stripes and styles.  All they share in common is the fact that they are downright scary.  There's a space helmet on the moon surface -- a sign of disorder.  And then a view of an M.C. Escher landscape/labyrinth.  And it's all accompanied by that diabolical sounding, repetitive, non-traditional score.

3. Millennium (1996 - 1999)

This opening to Chris Carter's artistic nineties masterpiece is a montage of unsettling images, all accompanied by an absolutely haunting violin score from Mark Snow.  On screen, messages warn us to "wait" and "worry," and then one pointedly ask "who cares?"  The images are subtle, but discomforting.  A woman slumps over as though life is too much for her to bear.  A child walks uncertainly across the tightrope of a  roof, threatening to fall (a symbol of children heading into an uncertain future?).   Over Frank's sanctuary -- the perfect yellow house -- the sky itself appears unsettled; as though time is racing too fast.  We are surging, out of control, into a dark future.  Also, there are signs of elements out of balance in the Millennium montage: fire burning; wind blowing open drapes, etc.  It's subtle, gorgeous and extremely powerful. 


2. Dexter (2005 - )

It's tough being a serial killer out there.  This delicious and brilliantly designed-and-shot title sequence from Showtime's Dexter reveals the morning activities of work-a-day blood-spatter analyst, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), who also just happens to be a serial killer.  The music by Rolfe Kent is playful and heightens expectations.  The "normal" morning routine -- shot in extreme detail -- makes us believe that pulping oranges, slicing ham and even flossing are all activities related to the handiwork of a death-obsessed sociopath.  And the last smile from Dexter is both  funny AND chilling.  Right now, on an unrelated note, Dexter gets my vote as the best series on television.  I just finished watching Seasons Three and Four, and this is truly one of the new classics.  Even as I write this, I'm listening to the Miami-flavored soundtrack...


1. Darkroom (1981 - 1982)
Okay, an unconventional choice given that about three people remember this early 1980s horror anthology hosted by James Coburn.  But as a ten year old kid, this title sequence sent me scurrying behind the sofa...or under a blanket.  The music is eerie as hell, even spine-tingling, and the first-person, steadicam tour of an empty mansion is nothing short of terrifying.  It feels inescapable and inevitable as we barrel relentlessly towards our dark destination, a locked door...and the Darkroom!  Again, much like Tales from the Darkside, simplicity is elegance.   Believe me, if you were to see this opening at 3:00 am, alone in the house, you'd be looking over your shoulder.  Constantly...



  1. I have a soft spot for the opening credits of FRIDAY THE 13th: THE SERIES along with quaint if not slighty creepy music. Also, EERIE, INDIANA had a pretty good one.

    Good call on BUFFY, I love the ep. where they tweak the opening credits and insert shots of Jonathan throughout because he has altered reality where he is the hero and not Buffy. That was very clever and funny as hell.

  2. A fine collection, here. The Buffy is always a great one. However, I still keep coming back to MILLENNIUM's beautifully unsettling intro. That one, for me, fires on all cylinders. Thanks, John.

  3. SteveW5:48 PM

    What, no love for the iconic X-FILES title sequence with its famous eerie theme song?

    KOLCHAK is a great choice though, particular in the way it transitions from the sunny, lilting opening melody (initially whistled by Kolchak himself) to that thrumming spooky cello sawing away as the whole atmosphere changes.

  4. Hey folks,

    J.D. - Friday the 13th the Series is one of the title sequences I looked at while preparing this list. It's very good, and gets to the context/locale of the show (with a look at the creepy antique shop). Excellent choice! I need to look at Eerie, Indiana again...that one evaded my radar, I think! :)

    Le0pard13: I love the Millennium title sequence. That violin score is just amazing, and so heartfelt. Gorgeous.

    SteveW: Another excellent choice, in The X-Files. I considered it, seriously for the list (number 11?).

    You know, in Terror Television, I named the X-Files the greatest horror TV series of all time, and I stick by that positive assessment. Huge X-Phile here! I would also add the theme song as one of the ten best.

    But the title sequence, to me, doesn't quite match the quality of the actual music or actual program. Does that make sense? The montage is a little cheesy, and the show itself is not cheesy in the's an intellectual's dream, about competing world views, not a tabloid-y exploration of the paranormal. Just my thoughts. Love the show; love the theme song; only like the title sequence...

    best to all,

  5. John

    Huge Dexter fan! I even bought that soundtrack. Terrific selection and I really look forward to Millennium.

    You'll enjoy the True Blood title sequence. It's not exactly horror but it's a little weird like the show. Great theme song too!

  6. Make that four people who remember DARKROOM, due to my longstanding Bloch/Nolan connections, and I'm with you all the way on THE NIGHT STALKER and the criminally mistreated MILLENNIUM.

    LeOpard13, whoever you are, you like Matheson and MILLENNIUM, so you've gotta be cool!