Even with two major industry strikes raging for months, horror somehow managed to persevere. Nothing can keep our beloved little genre down – not least because most of its output doesn’t make it to theaters, even in a good year. But, in 2023, that just meant we got to continue watching movies while the normies cried about Dune 2 being pushed back.
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This was a strong year for horror but in contrast to many other critics and fans, the most talked about releases really didn’t do it for me, from Skinamarink to Talk to Me, Evil Dead Rise to When Evil Lurks. This list might therefore be considered more idiosyncratic than others, or maybe I’m just becoming cynical in my old age.
With Perpetrator, writer-director Jennifer Reeder proves once and for all that being a young woman can be a truly monstrous endeavor. However, unlike most other movies of its ilk–including even beloved classics like Ginger Snaps–she leans into this idea rather than being disgusted by it. Lead Kiah McKirnan, making her feature debut, is astonishing as Jonny, who undergoes some kind of vampiric transformation while investigating missing girls in her area under the watchful eye of her glamorous but aloof aunt (a regal Alicia Silverstone). Especially given the dismantling of Roe v. Wade, it’s heartening to see a feminist horror so unafraid of encouraging viewers to take control of the narrative rather than simply accepting the scraps we’ve consistently been given. More accessible than the brain-scrambling Knives and Skin, Reeder’s latest is a rallying cry not to be a nice girl. Just don’t tell the TikTok tradwives.
Infinity Pool quickly became a meme thanks to Mia Goth’s wonderfully unhinged central performance but it’s actually the least outlandish of Brandon Cronenberg’s efforts thus far. Set predominantly at a luxury resort where a bunch of gormless rich people run riot without consequence, this movie is the kind of pitch-black satire that benefits from additional re-watches just so you can spot everything you missed the first time around, thanks to the jaw-dropping visuals. The younger Cronenberg’s vision isn’t always as clear as his father’s, and Possessor remains his magnum opus, but Infinity Pool takes a scalpel to the 1% in a way many movies released this year didn’t have the guts to and is all the better for it. The moment when the group is traveling back to the airport, vacation over and their many meaningless crimes tucked away in the backs of their empty little heads, is as chilling as any of the violence that precedes it.
With his latest project, filmmaker Anthony DiBlasi does something very novel indeed: He remakes his own movie. Malum is a new take on Last Shift, a cult-themed paranormal shocker from 2014 that’s set entirely in a police precinct and has legions of diehard fans though it still remains annoyingly underrated. With the benefit of more experience and, presumably, a slightly bigger budget, DiBlasi expands his story to create something altogether tougher to pin down. It’s a requel, if anything, but even that descriptor doesn’t really do the movie justice. The scares are plentiful and impossible to predict, just as they were in the original movie, and the cult itself is more fleshed out and grounded. Weirdly, Malum is arguably best enjoyed as a double feature with Last Shift, so you can spot the nuances between the two and pinpoint where DiBlasi has improved upon his original vision. It’s almost like watching the director and co-writer’s mind working through it all in real time, which is something we’re rarely treated to–especially this effectively.
Dewayne Perkins, the co-writer and star of The Blackening, has made it abundantly clear that his movie–expanded from the Comedy Central short of the same name–is not intended to cater to white audiences, who have long been the target for essentially every movie released ever. As a result, there are plenty of references and jokes in The Blackening that are likely to go over your head, but what makes the movie so special is that it doesn’t really matter. Aside from provoking further discussion, the energy is so electric and the commitment to presenting a uniquely Black experience so compelling that it renders minor quibbles unimportant. Sure, this isn’t the scariest movie on this list or even the scariest slasher, but it’s definitely among the best horror-comedy releases of the past few years, loaded with great jokes, spirited performances from a game cast, and a terrific killer design alongside a horrifying, Jumanji-like board-game. The Blackening was also clearly made by horror fans given at least one of the trivia questions.
Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s stark, brutal Finnish action-shocker was casually described as a European John Wick but protagonist Aatami (Jorma Tommila, Helander’s brother-in-law and an esteemed actor in their home country) makes Keanu Reeves’ iconic assassin look downright garrulous in comparison. Aatami doesn’t utter a single word until the film’s closing moments, allowing the focus to remain on the beautifully bleak landscape and his increasingly desperate attempts to survive amidst a Nazi onslaught. Sisu is a violent movie and Helander, alongside cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos, shoots in stunning daylight to emphasize Aatami’s plight alongside the harshness of the environment itself. He may have a reputation for being unkillable but there are plenty of moments when you’re just wishing Aatami would give up and die already. It’s to Helander and Tommila’s immense credit that that feels like a less viable option than slicing another man’s throat open and using the escaping air to breathe underwater
If this indeed the end of the modern Scream franchise, given the disgraceful treatment of lead actor Melissa Barrera for her pro-Palestine stance, and the subsequent loss of both co-lead Jenna Ortega and director Christopher Landon in quick succession, at least it went out on a high. Relocating the action to New York City gives the slasher franchise a swift kick up the butt, while the cold open–which subverts our expectations by seemingly revealing the identity of Ghostface right off the bat before switching things up once again–is one for the ages. Certain fans complained that the body count was too low, with each member of the so-called “core four” managing to make it through alive alongside series vet Courteney Cox, but it’s worth remembering that this is one of the leanest, meanest Scream movies yet with some of the gnarliest kills to boot. My guess is that co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, alongside returning screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, were planning a massive bloodbath for Scream 7 before they moved on from the project. The fact we’ll never get to see what they had in mind is disappointing, but it doesn’t change that this is still the best slasher release of 2023.
Waiting a full half hour before dropping the opening credits is a bold move but in the case of Kurtis David Harder’s Influencer, it’s one that pays off massively. On the surface, this is the story of a spoiled, oblivious social media star trusting someone she shouldn’t while on a paid vacation but scratch a little underneath the surface and you’ll discover a defiantly modern take on women’s safety both online and off. Cassandra Naud is exceptional as the twisted schemer who’s clearly never suffered the consequences of her actions, the actor’s dark eyes betraying a hunter’s need for survival that most people, both men and women alike, don’t pick up on until it’s much too late. Harder’s film is beautifully shot, making full use of the real locations, but its underbelly is as curdled and rotting as Naud’s character’s soul, which makes for a wickedly entertaining viewing experience.
There were two, time travel-based slashers released in 2023 and, for my money, Totally Killer managed what It’s a Wonderful Knife tried (and failed) to pull off without relying on a previously established framework (one that also didn’t make much sense or really add anything of value in the end anyway). Kiernan Shipka once again proves her comedic chops as a teenager who travels back in time to stop the murders that have haunted her small town for decades so she can save her mother in the process. Frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Totally Killer isn’t as cloyingly self-referential or self-consciously try-hard as other modern slashers, and the eighties setting isn’t overdone either. There are frequent references to how things have changed in the intervening years but not to the extent that this feels like a Republican ad campaign for the good ol’ days. This is a thoroughly modern slasher that’s clever enough to keep things simple and it’s easy to imagine it becoming part of the regular rotation in years to come too.
The Wrath of Becky
2020’s Becky is a wildly effective, blisteringly gory little revenge thriller that also features the best performance of Kevin James’ career. Not one to be outdone, Seann William Scott, aka the artist formerly known as Stifler, appears in this delightfully deranged sequel as another Nazi prick who runs afoul of Lulu Wilson’s titular avenger. Whereas plenty of sequels either rely on retreading the same old ground to provoke a feeling of nostalgia or overload us with so much new stuff it’s hard to get a handle on what the point of revisiting the story actually was, The Wrath of Becky captures your attention from the outset with Wilson’s droll narration, some seriously punk rock, super violent fantasy sequences, and a steadfast commitment to demonstrating just how pathetic real-life far right groups such as The Proud Boys really are. Much of the fun comes from watching Becky obliterate each and every one of them, while Scott’s performance–building on when he convincingly played a bloodthirsty serial killer in the under-seen Bloodline–is chillingly composed.
Nobody is more surprised than me to see an Eli Roth movie at the top of a best of the year list but there’s no denying it; Thanksgiving, aside from being his most successful film by far, is also the most entertaining horror movie of 2023. By going against his typical frat boy tendencies, Roth crafts a refreshingly mean ode to his home state of Massachusetts and the frequently horrible people who reside there and then has an absolute ball tearing them to pieces in the most disgustingly impressive manner imaginable. The opening is an all-timer, which sees Gina Gershon getting partly scalped and then killed by a rogue shopping trolley, and it only gets madder and more gruesome from there. The use of the Misfits’ classic “Where Eagles Dare” over the closing credits also connects this movie to Jackass Forever, another flick with plenty of bodily fluids flying. Take from that what you will.