Best Horror Films of 2023
2023 has been a strange year for horror films. It feels almost transitional, with these surrealist and liminal elements so popular in online media making their mark on the genre. On the other side we still have the endless milking of franchises, and yet these new installments are feeling fresh and fun. Perhaps the strange feeling in the genre is more because there’s all these projects on the horizon, haymakers still in development.
Even with this strange feeling, or perhaps capitalizing on it, we’ve gotten some incredible and creative efforts. We have solid genre fairs, subversions, the fun franchise revivals, and a host of films that demand you go all in on them in order to get anything out. Join us for ten of the best horror films we’ve seen so far in 2023.
First days at work don’t get much harder than in Malum. Jessica Loren (played by Jessica Sula) is a rookie cop working the Last Shift in the decommissioned police station where her father worked, before something made him snap and commit a bloody atrocity. She’s determined to find answers, along with finding strength in her new position, but a violent cult has been growing through the city and their ties to her father put her in extreme danger.
A remake of director Anthony DiBlasi’s 2014 effort Last Shift, Malum doesn’t quite find it’s own voice beside the original. However, it’s polished up, with some creepy effects and fantastic imagery and sound design. Some story beats feel fresh and hit just right, and when the cult and Jessica collide we get the erasure of the line between her reality and this twisted world the group is pushing for. There’s also a great atmosphere in an empty police station, fantastic setting for a horror film.
There are a LOT of jumpscares though, just kind of piled in here and there, which is a little disappointing when the great atmosphere is put aside for some cheap spooks. And the higher polish is effective at times, but the grittiness found in Last Shift might eke it out as the better offering. Still, Malum is a great ride that hits some surprising highs.
9. Infinity Pool
James and Em Foster (Alexander Skarsgard and Cleopatra Coleman) are living the high life, on a comfy beach vacation on the island of La Tolqa. James, being a struggling writer doomed to obscurity, miraculously comes across a couple claiming to be big fans of his. As the two couples enjoy a night out together, a disastrous accident reveals the underbelly of La Tolqa, where hedonistic tourism and surreal horrors pervert any ideas of a happy holiday.
Infinity Pool is director David Cronenberg’s latest effort, carving a surreal drug-fueled descent into depravity and extravagance. A reverse on The Picture of Dorian Gray, La Tolqa is a poor area with an extravagant resort where the rich find their repulsive acts carved away and destroyed as a separate entity. It’s a science-fiction concept at the heart of a troubling psychological horror, where for a price you can have a clone constructed to pay for your crimes in place of the real you.
Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgard’s performances are front and center, and amidst the nightmarish drug trips and reckless violence they get plenty of space to give terrifying life to their characters. It does suffer from a muddy narrative, and loses itself here and there with pacing. Despite that, it’s an ambitious film oozing style with great performances.
Influencer begins following social media star Madison (Emily Tennant) on a solo trip through Thailand. Her inspirational posts to her followers focus on her incredible experiences and all the people she’s meeting, whilst in reality she moves alone from place to place glued to her phone and feeling lonely. Then a chance meeting, a knowledgeable and fun girl named CW who shows her a more uninhibited way of living. Madison returns to her hotel room and finds her things thrown all over and passport missing, and CW’s interest in her takes on a dark turn.
I was really surprised with this one, expecting a simple horror genre fair of meeting someone on a holiday who turns out to be a dangerous stranger, then we enter some cat and mouse games in a foreign place. And whilst Influencer does hit those beats, Kurtis David Harder takes a unique approach and comes out with a gripping, fun, and at times quite tense film that opts to bend expectations rather than breaking them.
Transitioning seamlessly between following influencer Madison and following the enigmatic CW, played brilliantly by the flexible Cassandra Naud, is a brilliant decision. With characters built to be three dimensional, with faults sat right beside the endearing aspects of them, the audience floats between being behind our main focal point (CW), and those trying to expose what she’s done and who she really is. Influencer is extravagant, fun, deliciously tense, and abruptly brutal when it needs to be.
7. Scream VI
Picking up from after the events of the fifth film (Scream (2022), we find Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Sam (Melissa Barrera) trying to adapt to life in the city, far away from the small town of Woodsboro that holds their trauma. But there are things that Sam just can’t let go, and when new Ghostface killings begin surrounding the sisters, they’re thrust back into the terror they tried to separate from.
Scream VI edges the line between fun self awareness and cringe-worthy overuse of its own tropes, but never quite crosses it. It takes on the tropes and expectations of the franchise, both those as pastiche and those inherent to the Scream films themselves. But it does something new, it subverts expectations in clever ways and plays on trauma and power. It’s still Scream at the core, but right out of the gate it breaks its own rules.
We leave Woodsboro, have a whole host of firsts for the franchise as a whole, and Ghostface in universe ignores the rules set up for them. The use of guns, public attacks, even the initial people donning the mask encountering the main antagonists, a rare Ghostface on Ghostface attack. Slasher horror has had a bit of a resurgence lately, and with creative new entries we could see the subgenre revived with passion. It’s wild, an extremely enjoyable ride, and takes things in such a wild new direction that when the credits roll you’re left theory-crafting just how the next installment will approach things.
6. Beau Is Afraid
Beau lives an awkward and rough life. An anxiety riddled man living in a very sketchy area of town, constantly harassed by threats both real and imagined. And to make things worse, he’s about to have the worst few days of his life. He’s meant to catch a flight to see his mother, and his keys and luggage are stolen right at his front door. He needs to take medication with water, and finds the water shut off in his apartment. Then he gets a call and finds his mother has died, and now needs to find some way to get there for the funeral. So he embarks on a journey, one that leads to a confrontation with all his darkest fears and uncertainties.
The horror genre is often at its best with polarizing media. And the latest A24 film Beau Is Afraid is certainly that, with the heavy lean on surrealism and lengthy runtime leading to periods where it’s very easy to lose focus. The middle section of the film feels a world apart from the beginning and end, and whilst three hours isn’t all that long for a sprawling film like this, it feels like it drags its feet during that time. As with a lot of A24 films, Beau Is Afraid has it’s detractors that have very valid criticisms.
But that’s about all I can fault it on, Beau Is Afraid feels like a monumental character study, a grand Kafkaesque odyssey where the aim of the journey is simply to go back home. It’s a dark comedy following a catastrophic life, a through-and-through loser breaking down as everything goes wrong around him. There’s a lot to unwrap, and Ari Aster takes pleasure in never quite resolving things in a clear way, but with Joaquin Pheonix’s phenomenal performance in the titular role the raw emotion from everything is plainly conveyed to the viewer. One of those special films that you might initially be left scratching your head and unsatisfied by, and in the days to follow find that you really did love what you experienced there.
We all know the story of Dracula, at least the major beats. A figure that always makes an appearance is his loyal servant Renfield, who threw away everything in order to serve and get just a taste of that power. In Renfield we focus in on that character, in the modern day, who longs for a life away from Dracula after decades of servitude. Just splitting from the king of vampires isn’t such an easy task though, it’s the kind of abusive relationship that eats away at a person. But Renfield finds some hope, and tries to carve off a live of his own.
Renfield is so damn fun. Hilarious, action fueled, super stylish, and expertly acted. Nic Cage is Dracula, a role he fits perfectly, and Nicholas Hoult brings a nervous energy to the titular Renfield that gives the character a much needed breath of fresh air. Leaning into the oversaturated lore set up by the consistent stream of vampire media over the years, but also finding fresh and new ideas to explore, Renfield is pure over the top entertainment front to back. Comedy horror can be hard to pull off, but things don’t feel too hokey here, and the concept combined with the great acting comes across brilliantly.
The casting is great the whole way down, from Nic Cage and Nicholas Hoult, to the cowardly Teddy Lobo portrayed by Ben Schwartz, and the headstrong police officer Rebecca played by Awkwafina. Along the lines of What We Do In The Shadows, Renfield is a great time whether you’re into horror or not, providing clever humour over scares.
4. Knock at the Cabin
While vacationing in an isolated cabin in the woods, Wen (Kristen Cui) and her parents Eric (Jonathon Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have their cozy time invaded by a bizarre group of armed strangers. Taking the family hostage, the strangers demand they make the most difficult choice in order to prevent the apocalypse. They must sacrifice one of their own.
A brilliant adaptation of the Paul Tremblay novel The Cabin at the End of the World, and directed by visionary M. Night Shyamalan. Knock at the Cabin continues to show the range of not only Shyamalan as screenwriter and director, but also the acting of the incredible Dave Bautista. He brings something special that it’s hard to see anyone else bringing to the leader of the strangers, both charming and offputting, pathetic and imposing. The horror comes not just from the people, but from something larger than them; a cosmic sense of horror, the unknowable.
Seeing Shyamalan’s name often puts the viewer on edge for whatever twist ending is coming, which is an unfortunate side effect of his style of film making. However Knock at the Cabin subverts this quite early. Not by revealing an ending, but instead simply setting up the two options. Are the strangers here to seek some sort of vengeance on the innocent family for who they are? Or are they in fact correct, and their visions and shaky story is actually all too real. A clever and emotional film, presenting the most difficult choice a loving family could have to make, and constantly playing with that idea of what is truly going on.
3. The Outwaters
These next two entries are polarizing, but hear me out on why these obtuse and pretentious acid nightmares are modern masterpieces of the genre. The Outwaters begins by giving us a glimpse into the lives of our four main characters, and setting up them coming together to film a music video out on a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert. The first half is who they are, their journey, and getting to and exploring the long flat expanse they want to film at. The second half comes after hearing terrifying sounds late at night, and the very fabric of reality is torn so profoundly apart with a tear in the very sky above them.
In the end, this is a film that you can get a lot out of by giving yourself entirely over to it. A dark room late at night, all alone, willing and able to give all your attention to the screen, and willing to buy in wholly. Go on the ride, drop into a cyclical nightmare that refuses to let up. The Outwaters and the next film on the list share this special sense of experience, but without putting in this effort to take it in, I could see the glacial pace and uncanny progression being very boring.
That said, these films feel invigorating for horror. These experiences that have been prevalent in experimental short films for some time now seem to have found a place in full length, and it’s brilliant to see them thriving. The Outwaters is a visceral found-footage style mindfuck with a whole host of incredible imagery dripped in the desolation found deep in the desert.
Brother and sister Kevin and Kaylee wake up in the middle of the night. The house is oppressively dark, the silence almost palpable, and their father is missing. Something is wrong, and they need to find their dad. Struggling through the darkness, speaking low and soft, they find the doors and windows have vanished. Something else is here.
Skinamarink is confusing. It’s dark, it’s quiet and muffled. Things don’t seem to flow properly, and there’s long periods of nothing between the events in the film. And yet every second I was at the edge of my seat, fully immersed in this visceral imagining of a child’s nightmare. The space feels infinitely large, and yet too small, claustrophobic. The layout could be changing, and certainly the space seems to defy any rules we understand in reality. Something is here, it can be felt in the raw atmosphere emanating from every inch of darkness invading the screen.
Even though this is not our own childhood home, director Kyle Edward Ball captures his own family house in such a unique and powerful way that a sense of nostalgia knocked askew hangs over everything. Liminal spaces captured in the dark, alienating at the same time as comforting, uncanny yet familiar. To speak of nightmare fuel, the 911 call will forever be burned into my mind like a nuclear shadow. Heartbreaking and chilling all at once, the sense of defeat that comes with an isle of understanding amidst a sea of the unknown.
High concept horror, whether it takes the form of overbearing liminal nightmare or stylish fever dream, is an exciting place for the genre to settle into for the time being. Call me pretentious, but this is the stuff I absolutely eat up, and it’s the sort of film that really makes an impact (for better or worse).
1. Evil Dead Rise
The latest film in the beloved Evil Dead franchise, Evil Dead Rise follows the tense reunion between sisters Beth (Lily Sullivan) and Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland). Beth has been aloof, living her own life fast and hard whilst Ellie has built a family, and subsequently has come under hard times. They butt heads, but when a host of flesh possessing demons is released on their building, Beth must put aside her hangups and protect Ellie’s children. The most nightmarish form of family; one that’s out to annihilate everyone and spread beyond their enclosed space.
Evil Dead Rise is so much fun, finding new ground to stomp for the ever expanding Evil Dead franchise. We don’t get Bruce Campbell, there’s no dimension hopping or extra silly stuff going on, instead we get something closer to the spirit of the original. A localized horror, taking place entirely in an apartment building and more specifically almost entirely in one apartment and a corridor. It embraces the fun and tormentingly comedic side of the Deadites, and has a plethora of absolute winner lines.
Now that we’re, hopefully, over the trend of franchises being revived for some ‘final showdown’ stuff that missed more often than it hit, it feels like we could start seeing more films like Evil Dead Rise. Using established franchises as a framework to tell unique stories and build further up on the foundations already set up. There’s rivers of blood and some gruesome effects, intense action, and that unique cloying terror that comes from the Deadites playing with their victims on a personal level.
We’re just over halfway through 2023, and we’ve already gotten an exciting collection of new voices showcased as well as triumphant returns for established creators. And there’s still plenty more to come, with adaptations like Iron Lung and The Backrooms in production, Darren Aronofsky’s take on Koji Suzuki’s Adrift, Poor Things from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster)… Spooky season never ends, dear horror fans.