Horror movies are, and have always been, a good bet for producers in terms of return on investment. They’re cheap to make, and popular—really popular, more so than you might think given the incredulous articles about the genre that pop up every once in a while. (They’re the “Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t for Kids Anymore!” of our age and will hopefully be just as anachronistic soon.)
This makes horror one of the last true bastions of independent filmmaking. In what other genre could a movie as experimental as “Skinamarink” break through into mall cineplexes? Along with the slightly less celebrated “The Outwaters,” Kyle Edward Ball’s homemade (Ball literally shot the movie at his parents’ house) evocation of childhood nightmares throttled horror into the future in 2023, one seeped in the liminal aesthetics and viral whims of the internet.
Major studios haven’t caught up to “Skinamarink” yet, and possibly never will. But they have been paying attention to the renewed wave of interest in the horror genre (while noting the economics as well, no doubt). That made 2023 a great year for franchise films—the dreadful “The Exorcist: Believer” excepted. Considering their late-franchise status, “Scream VI,” “Evil Dead Rise,” and “Saw X” were all better than they needed to be. “Scream” and “Evil Dead” have been passed to new caretakers—filmmaking team Radio Silence and Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin, respectively—while “Saw” continues to be shepherded by Kevin Greutert, who served as an editor on the first five films before taking over as director.
“Saw” also became a cultural touchstone among terminally online Gen Zers in 2023, pointing to an arc that seems inevitable now: Gore is back, and “torture porn” can’t be far behind. And with James Wan having moved on to more of a mentor role—one of his best recent achievements is launching the career of “M3GAN” screenwriter Akela Cooper—the revival of ‘00s-style nastiness and gore is Eli Roth’s spotlight to step into. Conventional wisdom would say that making a feature-length version of a fake trailer from 15 years ago is a terrible idea, executed 14 years too late. And yet, Roth’s “Thanksgiving” was gory, nasty, and right on time.
But the film that best represents the transitional state of horror in 2023 is “Talk To Me.” A breakout effort from a pair of Australian YouTubers that blends giddy teen-horror kicks with Ari Aster-influenced emotional violence, it’s a quintessential combination of the influences and impulses that are shaping the genre at this moment. Examples, of course, do not prove a rule. But 2023 brought us a promising sign in terms of the cultural impact and staying power of the year in horror: This Halloween, social media was flooded with costumes inspired by “M3GAN,” “Talk To Me,” and even, yes, “Skinamarink.” Is there any bigger compliment a film can receive?
The Ten Best Horror Films of 2023
Laura Moss’ feature debut is driven by three things. First, a thoughtful screenplay that engages directly with thorny themes around personhood, autonomy, and gender. Then, the killer performances from stars Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland, who too rarely get juicy lead roles like these. And finally, a dispassionate, clinical eye towards anatomy and reproduction that both updates the Frankenstein myth for the 21st century and brings it back to its female-driven roots. (On Shudder.)
While not without its flaws—the direction doesn’t always live up to the surprises in writer Chris Tohmas Devlin’s Black List script—this twisty, twisted take on the haunted-house film demands your attention nonetheless. (On Hulu.)
“Evil Dead Rise”
Compared to its franchise peers, there aren’t very many “Evil Dead” movies. And not a single one of them, including this over-the-top bloodbath set in a nearly abandoned apartment building in downtown L.A., is bad. That’s commendable, and the movie’s a blast, too. (On Prime Video and Max.)
“Huesera the Bone Woman”
Mexican writer-director Michelle Garza Cervera is another talent to watch in the genre. Her debut feature, “Huesera: The Bone Woman,” works on multiple levels, giving audiences both nuanced commentary on reproductive autonomy and the pressures of motherhood and gnarly, wince-inducing body horror. (On Shudder.)
Brendan Cronenberg’s films drip with fluids of all types. “Infinity Pool” drips with sarcasm as well, combining eat-the-rich satire with psychedelic sexuality and heady sci-fi body horror. Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgard’s commitment to their kinky characters ties all the weird visual and thematic elements together, giving the film a hallucinogenic clarity. (On Hulu.)
“Perpetrator” is a singular work from an utterly singular filmmaker. Jennifer Reeder’s visionary films take place in a deadpan dimension populated with monstrous femmes and vibrate on a frequency that’s unlike anything else. Either you can tune into it, or you can’t. (To paraphrase Matthew McConaughey in that one movie, though, it’d be a lot cooler if you could.) (On Shudder.)
An obsession with the liminal is a hallmark of internet horror, and “Skinamarink” epitomizes its grainy-hallways-and-jump-scares aesthetic. Writer-director Kyle Edward Ball got his start with a YouTube channel where he filmed other people’s nightmares; that must have given him insight into the primal fear centers of the unconscious mind, because he manipulates them so skillfully here. (On Shudder.)
“Talk to Me”
A24’s surprise summer hit brings an anything-can-happen feeling back to horror that’s been missing over the past several years. The film pulls no punches in terms of its heroine’s physical and mental distress. But even when it gets dark—like suicide and psychosis dark—it’s still a thrill ride. (On VOD.)
Eli Roth returns to form with this good, old-fashioned turkey with a butcher knife stuck in its back. The jokes are sick, the kills are gory, and the movie is mean without losing its sense of fun. (A sign of a more mature filmmaker, perhaps?) Overall, it’s a welcome reminder of the visceral pleasures of slasher movies in their classic early-’80s style. (In theaters.)
Demián Rugna is the type of filmmaker one might call a “sick bastard,” but in an affectionate way. The bad vibes in his latest film—about an inescapable, unstoppable evil that spreads through an isolated rural community—are so oppressive, you can practically smell them in your clothes like a campfire afterwards. It’s both deathly serious and over-the-top and makes no apologies for it. (On Shudder.)
The nature of festival runs—particularly for independent films—means that sometimes there’s a significant delay between a title’s festival premiere and its eventual release. With that in mind, two to look forward to in 2024 are: First, Jason Yu’s mindfuck chamber piece “Sleep,” which premiered at this year’s Cannes, was a hit in its native South Korea, and is slated for North America in March. “New Life,” a Fantasia premiere about which the less is said the better (in a good way), isn’t dated yet, but has been acquired by sales agent XYZ Films. Both should top your horror watch lists for 2024.
Read interviews with the filmmakers behind half of Katie's top ten below: