Mixed-Blood Title Sequences

Remi Grelow

While blood, red and charged with symbolism is omnipresent on our cinema screens, it may be pertinent to ask if it also flows between the lines of title sequences in recent years. Or to put it another way, are the coming years going to be blood-soaked?

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012
Le bal des vampires, 1967

The title sequence of Dark shadows may seem surprising: an aerial meander over a train cutting through a snowbound landscape, Nights in White Satin playing, and lettering as white as freshly laundered bedsheets. In a film about vampires you would expect a scarlet wash of blood right from the start! Where are the torrents of red that should be flooding the screen? Twilight offers the same surprise: a black and white title sequence showing characters and sets, the only touch of color a red apple. What's become of all the blood in title sequences? In coming years, will there be blood?

Blood is ever-present in film, even giving birth to a genre of its own; splatter, where the goal is to show the audience as much blood as possible. Blood is an essential motif, suggested of course by a striking shade of red, which stains the screen. It would be interesting to establish a color chart of the many shades of red, which have graced the screen since the appearance of color in film. Blood plays on the audience's emotions, through both its ever-presence and occasional furtive glimpses, making it a wonderfully expressive tool in title sequences. As a background color it sets a tone of violence in films such as Machete, with its blood-soaked action and fight scenes, or Vertigo, where it denotes an atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia. Red is also a recurring color for lettering. From zombie movies like Dawn of the Dead to gangster movies like Goodfellas a red-lettered title guarantees high impact (this holds true even where the credits are not in red). So what of real blood, blood that sprays from wounded bodies? Is it only to be found in filmed sequences?

While close-ups of droplets and gouts of blood are commonplace, some title sequences seem to delight in playing with their audience's expectations. The latest crop of television series provides a rich vein of examples. The color red is strikingly absent in the dense opening montage, which sets the social stage for the vampires of True Blood. Blood finally puts in an appearance as the title is displayed. At the last possible moment a transparent bag of blood is shown, as if to remind the audience that they will soon be seeing vampires. In The Walking Dead the emphasis is on desolate landscapes, shattered photographs of absent families, and not a vampire to be seen. The opening sequence of Dexter isn't shy with its displays of blood, but rather than the blood of his victims, we see the killer's blood as he cuts himself shaving. Actual violence is only suggested in playfully ironic close-ups of food being prepared.

In a perfect counterpoint to The Walking Dead, the opening sequence of Zombieland is a feast of dizzying slow-motion torrents of hemoglobin, blood spattered zombie faces and mouths, torn flesh and red sprays of blood on a car's windshield. Blood is everywhere in a humorous, almost cartoonish display. Yet another trend is to delicately suggest, through an esthetic play of red blood gaily staining a light background : red lettering and clinical nudity for After Life, a red square on a white backdrop for Hard Candy. There are also sequences, which play with the audience through ambiguous displays of blood, which turn out to be fruit syrup: syrup on sorbet in Lady Vengeance, or syrup on meat in American Psycho. Reaching further back in time, the title sequence of The Fearless Vampire Killers displays a small drop of red running down its vertical scroll, finally resolving into the shape of a bat. Blood as ink? This certainly seems to have been the inspiration for Jonathan Block's title sequence for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. A long thread of blood spreads vigorously over a sheet of paper, to form an unexpected map of the United States: an apt summary of the film.

Lastly, Sweeney Todd is one of the most interesting of these cases in recent years. Tim Burton stays faithful to his pattern of dynamic title sequences, which generally avoid showing characters, drawing the viewer straight into the atmosphere of the film. Richard Morrison gives us a macabre and hypnotic opening. The flow of blood is almost a living thing, a dynamic stream running through the demon barber's lair.  It starts out amongst raindrops before running through the walls and slithering like a worm across the barber's chair, to trigger a mechanism tilting the chair towards a deadly trap. The stream of blood runs through the gears of the deadly mechanism like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and boils through the crematorium before finally washing away into the sewers below. This CGI blood is a living creature, at once an allegory for the drama about to unfold, and an abstract embodiment of Sweeney Todd's desire for revenge.

The blood flooding out of the barrel of James Bond's gun remains perhaps the most memorable display of blood in title sequences. Although not strictly speaking part of the opening credits, the simple message of this sequence has drawn us into 007's world since his very first outing: action. Although the sequence has kept pace with evolving animation techniques from one film to the next, the underlying principle is unchanging. From Maurice Binder's playful opening in Dr No to the nightmarish wash of blood-flooded deep-sea twilight with which Daniel Kleinman opens Skyfall this message remains, despite the varying styles. It's worthy of note that the last two outings, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, have broken with tradition by omitting the starting gun. Skyfall plays on the audience's expectations by replacing the traditional gun barrel by a look-alike out-of-focus distant shot of Daniel Craig. The gun barrel sequence instead appears with the closing credits of these last two films, as if to reassure the audience that James Bond will be staying true to his habit of flooding the screen with his enemies' blood.

American Psycho (2000)

Lady Vengeance (2005)

After Life (2009)

Hard Candy (2005)

Zombieland (2009)

Dexter (TV) (2006)

The Walking Dead (TV) (2010)

True Blood (TV) (2008)

Goodfellas (1990)

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Vertigo (1958)

Machete (2010)

Twilight (2008)