Another year, another period of clueless outlets asking "is horror back" as genre films big and small smashed the box office. If only they'd realize that horror never left.
2023 was another stellar year for the genre. We saw big name franchises return to theaters with the likes of Evil Dead Rise, Saw X, Scream VI and others. We met villains who will likely become new horror icons in their time through M3GAN and Thanksgiving. Exciting new voices came screaming out of the void with feature debuts such as the Philippou brothers' Talk to Me and Michelle Garza Cervera's Huesera. And beloved writers returned to scare us once again with the Kevin Williamson-penned pandemic reflection, Sick, and Dennis Paoli's Suitable Flesh, in which director Joe Lynch managed to channel Stuart Gordon for a Lovecraft meets 90s erotic thriller.
This year also saw a new wave of experimental horror reliant on creating a sensory experience in the likes of Robbie Banfitch's The Outwaters and Kyle Edward Ball's Skinamarink. Because of their nature, both films continue to inspire discourse amongst fans nearly a year after being released. They also continue to haunt those of us who found their immersive storytelling styles a brilliant attempt at making the audience feel as if they are in the movie, experiencing the same torment as the characters. While I understand those who didn't find themselves connecting with these or others like them, there's no denying the impact they've had, and I'd expect to see a lot more like them as horror continues to evolve and search for fresh ways to scare us.
Looking deeper under the flesh of the genre in 2023, this was also a year in which our fears of tech, having children, and a nihilistic future were lurking within. Frankenstein-inspired stories such as Birth/Rebirth, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, and Poor Things (though I wouldn't quite call it horror) all took different approaches to the classic tale while exploring what it means to be both creator and "monster". A host of films including Huesera, M3GAN and Evil Dead Rise spoke to a growing apprehension over having children. Probably because others such as When Evil Lurks, No One Will Save You and Everyone Will Burn captured that feeling many of us have that the world is very much not okay, and doesn't look to be getting any better any time soon.
With all of that being said, below you'll find a list of my top ten horror films of 2023. Understand that "best" and "favorite" mean different things to us all, and no one's list will be the same. For me, these are the films that either resonated with me on a personal level, cemented themselves as annual rewatches, or just flat-out entertained the hell out of me. If you don't see one of your favorites listed, that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a spot here. Only that, as always, horror sits with each and every one of us in different ways. What scares us is unique for everyone, and that is the very reason why this genre will never "be back", because it'll never die. Besides, if it did, well, we all know that nothing ever really stays dead in this genre, does it?
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
There’s a line in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak where protagonist Edith (Mia Wasikowska) says that her story is not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost, and I feel that applies well to writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s post-WWII chamber film, Brooklyn 45. About a group of veterans reuniting after the war and forced to face the ghosts of their past—as well as come to terms with the things they have done in the name of their country—this story isn’t a traditional ghost story. Instead, it’s a dramatic thriller with a ghost, a tightly wound pressure cooker dealing with topics of guilt, death and the war that never ends for some. Assisted by his now deceased father and United States Air Force veteran, Michael, there’s a profound honesty in Ted’s film that speaks directly to the soul. It's a heartfelt tale that dares you to question your own interpretations of right and wrong, good and evil. Are these soldiers bad people, or were they merely following orders? The answer is far more complicated than a simple yes or no, but by the end, Brooklyn 45 has taken you on an introspective journey the likes of which only a powerful story can.
Audiences waited a lot longer for Eli Roth’s feature adaptation of his faux trailer from Grindhouse (2007), Thanksgiving, but the wait was worth it as the Turkey Day-set slasher turned out to be one of the more entertaining horror films of the year. The script could be tighter and it isn’t going to wow you by smashing convention, but as far as simple stalk and slash movies go, Roth delivers. From outrageous laughs to crowd-pleasing kills, Thanksgiving is a feast of gruesome horror wearing an aughts slasher mask that satisfies that craving for mean yet fun terror. Us fans are still going to set the movie watching table with Blood Rage every November, but look for Thanksgiving to be plated next to it.
When I reviewed writer/director Robbie Banfitch’s found-footage horror flick The Outwaters, I said it was the closest a film had come to capturing what the sensation of death must be like. Almost a year later, I stand by that. About a group of friends who venture into the Mojave Desert and suddenly find themselves in an alternate dimension of horror, this film is a terrifying sensory experience that for the second half, mostly leaves us in impenetrable darkness. We beg to see what’s happening, yet whenever we do, are met with something horrible that makes us wish the screen had remained black. What begins as a calm, serene journey amongst friends descends into an hour of unflinching hell, full of screams and blood and madness and the desperate pleas of the cast for it all to be over. The Outwaters is a nightmare ripped from the mind of Banfitch and plastered on the screen. Calling it one of the scariest films of the year would be an understatement.
Three features in, Brandon Cronenberg has shown us that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it does taste different. While both the writer/director and his father, master of horror David Cronenberg, deliver stories interested in the human body as an at once curious and awful prison, Brandon offers up a more psychedelic flavor, on full display in Infinity Pool. We cannot trust anything we see in his films, and in the case of anti-hero James (Alexander Skarsgard), the selfish bastard can’t even trust that he is himself. A story about the soullessness of the privileged and their attempts to fill the empty space inside with depravity, Infinity Pool sucks the viewer into a fascinating world where everyone, including the mysterious Gabi (Mia Goth), wears a beautiful face hiding the decaying ghoul beneath. Directed with a hypnotic allure and packed with extreme moments of sex and violence, Cronenberg’s third feature is yet another testament to the filmmaker’s talent and his ability to leave the audience questioning if any of us really are who we think we are on the inside. Extra credit for giving us the image of Goth holding a naked Skarsgard on a leash. Now that’s cinema!
Talk to Me
Don’t look now, but directors Danny and Michael Philippou may have made the teen folklore horror movie of the decade…at least, so far. About a group of kids who come into ownership of a spiritual hand that can invite spirits into their bodies and decide to develop a tik-tok party game around it, there’s an important conversation creeping underneath the surface of Talk to Me. It reaches into the lonely depths of that age, when we’re searching for acceptance as we navigate a world that appears much darker once we crossover over from childhood into being a young-adult. The hand, the game, protagonist Mia’s (Sophie Wilde) desperation to gain the respect of her peers, all of it ties into the dangerous territory we enter when the embrace of others changes from want to need. Sub in sex and drugs for the mummified appendage and you have a poignant teen horror film that strikes at a sensitive chord ripe for terror. That’s why some, including myself, have called it one of the scariest films of the year, and why I can’t wait to see what sort of vicious horror the Philippou brothers scare us with next.
Evil Dead Rise
Twice now, an Evil Dead film not directed by Sam Raimi has been released, each time worrying fans that they wouldn’t live up to that original trilogy, and each time proving doubters wrong. With Evil Dead Rise, the latest entry in the Dead franchise, Writer/director Lee Cronin understood the assignment, delivering a chainsaw to the face of a film drenched in crowd-pleasing gore. Just like it was with Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead (2013), I knew from the opening scene that Cronin would not disappoint (Evil Dead Rise might just have one of the best title drops in the genre). Vicious. Chaotic. Terrifying. Cronin’s film surges forth like a banshee out of Hell with an enraged scream that makes your ears bleed, and it never lets up. Yet perhaps what’s most exhilarating about Evil Dead Rise is that its success has (hopefully) shown the powers that be that this franchise can not only do quite well outside of that iconic cabin, but dawn is a long way off, and its far from dead. Give us Evil Dead on a boat. On a plane. At an arctic station. We’ll be there for all of it, ready to have our souls swallowed once again.
It would be an understatement to say that writer/director Kyle Edward Ball’s lo-fi masterpiece of sensory-driven horror, Skinamarink is divisive. Some like myself have called it brilliant, while others deem it boring and "just a bunch of shots of walls". This unique film about two children left in a dark house with something sinister isn’t for everyone, but what Ball accomplishes by giving us little detail in way of plot or character is allow the viewer to transfer themselves into the film. An immersive experience of unbridled dread, it brings you back to those moments alone in the dark as a kid, listening to the quiet of your home, wondering what might be out in the hallway or lurking in the closet. Whatever you were afraid then, Skinamarink brings roaring back with vicious animosity. By no means is it a pleasant watch for that reason, but it's difficult to deny the power of a film that can open up old wounds with ease. There just isn’t anything like Skinamarink out there. It’s a beast unique of its own, and it knows exactly what scares you.
Beau is Afraid
Beau is Afraid. Beau is very afraid. Thus is the case in Ari Aster’s latest, a film that may not meet the traditional standards of “horror”—and we could certainly debate its merit to be included here—but I’d be lying if I said his strange odyssey about a man’s fear of, well, everything, didn’t get under my skin. Rather than murderers and monsters—disregarding that unforgettable penis creature—Aster taps into a more personal fear, that anxiety that overwhelms some of us the moment we step outside our front doors to face the world, even if it’s just to buy a carton of milk. Ever felt all of your nerves screaming as they’re stretched to their limits, merely because you have to attend a social gathering or are about to sleep with someone for the first time? That’s Beau is Afraid in a nutshell. The world is a scary place, and Aster captures that very concept in two and a half hours of dread-induced, what the hell is happening angst. Not to mention, it’s also darkly hilarious and highly entertaining. We may not all feel this way when leaving the comfort of our homes, but for those of us that do, Aster nails it with a weird journey you can't soon forget.
When Evil Lurks
Between Terrified and When Evil Lurks, I think it’s safe to say that if you’re sitting down with a film from writer/director Demian Rugna, you’d better be prepared to have your boundaries tested. The taboo shattering director once again delivers a horror film that isn’t afraid to push our limits, and that’s what makes this unconventional possession movie so scary. When a horror film lets us know early on that neither kids nor dogs are safe, there’s a certain dissolving of trust between the viewer and the filmmaker that puts us further on edge. We can’t be sure of what we’re about to see when it becomes clear that anything and everything is on the table. By the end of When Evil Lurks’ first act, all bets are off as Rugna drags us deep down into the dark where nightmares are born. As punishing and shocking as the hell its monsters were conceived in, When Evil Lurks is hardcore horror that doesn’t give a fuck about your comfort.
Godzilla Minus One
Never in my lifetime did I think I would leave a Godzilla film believing that it wasn’t just one of the best horror movies of the year, but one of the best films of the year. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Godzilla Minus One. By taking audiences back to a grieving post-WWII Japan in which veterans are forced to combat the towering kaiju dubbed Godzilla, Takashi Yamazaki’s franchise entry does what so many of the sequels never could: It makes us care. About the people. About the consequences of war. About everything. This wasn’t the first time I cried during a Godzilla film—looking at you, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah—but only Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original made my soul ache in the same way as Minus One. It’s as if Godzilla has sensed the looming threat of nuclear war around the globe and risen once again to remind us of the utter devastation of the consequences. Frightening and packed with thrilling adventure as well as profound moments of humanity, Yamazaki’s film is a triumph of the human spirit. The bar has been raised to a new height befitting of the King of the Monsters, and while it would be unwise to expect further entries to reach that level, I’m excited to see filmmakers take on the challenge.
Honorable Mentions: M3GAN...Saw X
By Matt Konopka