TALK TO ME takes this year’s cake for me by a large margin. Danny & Michael Philippou’s merciless dunk into an unfriendly afterworld chilled me to the bone (and when I viewed it a second time it done my psyche equal damage). A wonderfully performed, freshly directed goosebump inflictor unafraid of exploring the complexities of grief and guilt, this is a truly frightening film that gives even an old codger like myself, great hope and anticipation for the next generation of horror. Much applause.
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER is a rare treat that truly transports you into an another (wonderfully gloomy) time and place. I’ve had a lifelong love of seafaring horror films and Andre (TROLL HUNTER, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK) Ovredal’s take on “The Captain’s Log” chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is right up my rain-soaked, waterlogged alley. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this particular cruise features the most alarmingly frightening vision of a vampire since SALEM’S LOT (’79).
THANKSGIVING is a devout homage to eighties slashers (particularly of the Canadian variety) that impishly high-fives every beloved trope before it stomps on home plate AND is the best thing to happen to the titular holiday since green bean casserole was invented. Extra points earned for it’s opening mob scene take down of rabid consumerism. Many had been waiting for this flick since Eli Roth’s faux trailer of the same name appeared in 2007’s GRINDHOUSE but I feel like I’ve been sadly missing out on its existence since about 1981.
WHEN EVIL LURKS came around just in time to disprove my premature belief (aka wishful thinking) that I had outgrown my lifelong fear of possession films. Turns out that in the right, thoughtful hands there’s plenty of life (and death) left in the sub-genre that had me quaking in my bobo brand shoes as a child. There’s a wild, frenzied, uncontrollable spirit to Demian (TERRIFIED) Rung’s backyard epic that kept me happily grinding my teeth throughout.
M3GAN was built to last and pretty much achieved icon status before her films release based on her meme-baiting trailer alone. For decades, many have tried and failed to rival fan favorite, Chucky in the killer doll department and this smirky, knowingly campy, yet still uncannily creepy robotic hellion is the first to come close. None of this should work and yet its circuitry runs smoothly with zero glitch. I don’t know how they pulled it off but just as Megs did with a poor unfortunate bully’s ear, they happily did.
SCREAM VI leaves its predecessor in the dust and what more can you ask for from a slasher sequel? It’s New York City setting certainly did much to breath new life in the long in the tooth franchise but more impressively, it changed the trajectory of a few of its characters from snoresville to somewhat engaging. I’d rank this much higher if it actually had the cojones to off some of its leads but I thought it was a surprisingly invigorating (yet wildly implausible) jaunt just the same.
THE CONFERENCE is a Swedish black comedy that continues 2023’s slasher revival. It takes its time revving up but once its game pieces are securely in place, its a joy to watch them get mischievously knocked down with sly sight gags, clever editing, highly rewindable kills and a Bob’s Big Boy-esque masked killer with a hard to argue with motive.
INFINITY POOL is quite the challenging, slippery fish and I think we’ve established that I’m leaning toward tried and true comfort horror in my current mental state but I’m also easily mesmerized by both Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgard so here we are. I’m not sure I can explain the plot of this latest surreal mind-screw from Brandon uber-Cronenberg but suffice to say, it expertly stoked my fear of traveling to foreign lands and left me with a lingering feeling of unease.
EVIL DEAD RISE bravely takes its mother franchise into unfamiliar urban territory and although it may not utilize the full potential of its fresh environment, its penchant towards extravagant splatter is hard to argue with. If Alyssa Sutherland’s wickedly demonic grimace doesn’t get under your skin, director Lee Cronin’s gloriously gory (not to mention groovy) climax certainly will.
TOTALLY KILLER & THE BLACKENING are slasher comedies that I actually found genuinely funny. The former mixes BACK TO THE FUTURE time travel with neon eighties horror excesses to charming effect and the latter pointedly pokes fun of the genre’s sketchy history with black representation. Perhaps even more so than horror, comedy is highly subjective so don’t sue me if you ribs are more resistant to tickling than mine. I mean, I also found THE POPE’S EXORCIST hilarious so maybe don’t go by me!
COBWEB deep dives into childhood fears (especially of parents) and has a crisp, spooky Halloween vibe that’s hard to resist. Visually, it’s an eye-candy stunner, although it may have fared better in the scares department if it was more grounded and less precious and artsy (I’m also extracting points for including yet another home invasion by folks in animal masks bit). The direction and cast are great (Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr are memorably unnerving) but best to take this one in as a dark fantasy akin to MATILDA or CAROLINE rather than straightforward horror for full effect.
THE BOOGEYMAN and THE NUN 2 are audience-friendly jolt dispensers that may not have what it takes to set the world on fire but graciously delivered the well-oiled horror escapism that I (almost medically) require. Rob (HOST) Savage’s stab at Stephen King’s short story is more creature feature than its more psychological (and slim) source material and that’s way OK by me. The cast is top notch, the scares work and it does a fine job of representing those fears of things that go bump in the night. As for the latest cinematic run-in with the demon nun known as Valak, this sequel easily outdoes the original outing, features an awesome giant goat monster (!) and I have to admit I found myself strangely invested in the plight of its main characters. Both are about as mainstream as they come but still deserve kudos for delivering the goods. Additionally, I also had a pleasant enough time with the family drama leaning INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR though it may say something that my favorite part of that film was Patrick Wilson & Ghost’s cover of Shakespeare’s Sister’s “Stay” over the closing credits.
NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU involves an alien abduction and therefore I’m automatically intrigued. Written and directed by Brian Duffield (SPONTANEOUS) and starring the effortlessly expressive Kaitlyn Dever, this marathon-like take on the home invasion flick is brazenly in your face (there’s no cruel waiting for the final reel for a momentary glimpse of the intergalactic interlopers), non-stop startling and delightfully low on dialogue. It may not permanently destroy your well being like FIRE IN THE SKY (’93) but its captivating its its own stellar way none the less.
THE OUTWATERS and SKINAMARINK are the troublemakers in class this year and I don’t mind giving them props for willfully singing their own tunes no matter what’s on the radio. Both flicks are confounding puzzle jumbles at times (OUTS is a patience pusher, SKINS brings new meaning to the term vague) and yet, this devious duo delivered images (OUTS with its gruesome decapitated head sticks, SKINS with its diabolical Fisher Price phone) that will be burned into my brain forever and as a horror fan, I can’t help appreciating that. Additionally, I’m thinking Mark Jenkin's THE WICKER MAN wannabe ENYS MEN is a spiritual sibling to this off-center duo though as much as I loved that film’s poetic visuals, the rest of it pretty much flew kite-like right over my poor addled head.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN and SICK despite boasting the impressive pedigrees of KNOCK being directed by the periodically great M. Night Shyamalan and SICK being written by SCREAM’s Kevin Williamson, failed to make much of an impression on me. Still, both were entertaining enough watches thanks to heavy-lifting performances by Dave Bautista (KNOCK) and quirky Jane Adams (SICK). I wouldn’t be opposed to giving both a second viewing in the future because it’s highly possible I simply watched them on a zombie-mode off day.
SAW X was met with open arms by both fans and critics so I figured I’d give it a shot. I never had much motivation to keep up with the franchise but since this offering took place between the first and SAW II, I figured I’d be all up to date. Turns out that even though I dig the work of Tobin Bell and especially the great Shawnee (THE BLOB) Smith, even this above average sequel is still not my bag. I’m not feeling the industrial warehouse vibe or the moralizing (the pig mask is cool though!). I mean, this film opens with Jigsaw fantasizing about vacuuming some dude’s eyes out of his head all because he briefly considered stealing a watch! Talk about being tightly wound! I appreciate a good grudge, I guess I just like my killers to be a little more stoic and a lot less scold-y.
EXORCIST: BELIEVER is one of the few true clunkers that I witnessed this year and I’d like it to go sit in the corner and think about what it's done. What can be said about a legacy sequel that not only disappoints on a storytelling level but also frustratingly squanders the amazing cast it fails to deserve? But hey, let’s not end this ramble on a negative note, I will begrudgingly admit that it did feature some impressive make-up effects (even if much was jettisoned to the cutting room floor) and a competent performance or two. Plus, think of all the animals dear Linda Blair helped with her paycheck!
What were your favorite horror films of 2023? I know I’ve missed more than a few so leave a comment with your thoughts! Recommendations, opinions and dire warnings appreciated!