An unsafe place where “low budget” is merely a call for creativity, horror pits some of the simplest concepts against the biggest, bidding them all the same: “scare.” A sift through the average, here are The Idea Sift’s top horror movies of 2023.
Honorable mention: Cobweb
Opening on the same day as Barbie and Oppenheimer, Cobweb rounds out the triple feature that never was. If Barbie undermines the endless crusade that is the patriarchy, and Oppenheimer confirms the casualties, Cobweb portends that we just might be able to get so weird with all of it, that we shake out even those clingiest of idiocies.
The film is an itchy supernatural who-does-it complete with oppressive parents and a nosy teacher — Carrie, the archetype. Studio Point Gray Productions, founded by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, had a big year. Cobweb marks its first outing in horror, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, its first in the medium of animation. Not everything works in Cobweb — some sequences feel rushed and lose that all-important realism for earnest horror — but we’ve confused realism with value too absolutely. This is one to just enjoy. Come for the Antony Starr and Lizzy Caplan; stay for the voices in the wall.
Honorable mention: Knock at the Cabin
M. Night Shyamalan works best with emotional stakes. His recent offerings in Old (2021) and The Visit (2015) worked without many, but were still able to thrill with either an everpresent, high-concept premise, or a about-face fast enough to feel like low-oxygen laughs. Knock at the Cabin somehow manages both.
Shyamalan’s most spiritual movie since Signs, the Paul G. Tremblay adaptation finds ordinary people in extraordinary situations. A group of zealots stage a home invasion and pressure both the family they’ve captured and themselves to make decisions of increasing consequence, and increasing violence. Dave Bautista, perhaps best known as “Drax” from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, delivers a career-best performance as an exceedingly humble, but gigantic elementary school teacher on the brink. Shyamalan controls the tension like a thermostat. It’s his best work since his first set of films, and a welcome, full-throated return from a unique master of the genre.
10. Sister Death
Sister Death is more than just the movie The Nun II should have been this year. The Spanish film toys with the tropes of villainy in Catholic horror, which since The Exorcist have largely retained their original form. There are crises of faith here still, and hauntings do act as beats for the story, but the resolutions in Sister Death will draw new lines between natural and supernatural. Newcomer Aria Bedmar plays Sister Narcisa with a moral conscience too instinctively curious for her conservative elders and a pure countenance too magnetic for her students. Doubt is what opens the doors to demons — if we’re to believe other films of the genre — but here, Narcisa’s is revelatory.
9. Scream VI
The Scream franchise is built on the bait and switch. If the audience alone is laughing at the pranks apart from any of the characters, these heavily meta movies lose some of their most clever hooks. Critically lamented blips of self-seriousness crept into some of the more recent offerings, sacrificing the angular propulsion Carpenter’s first film so ably helmed. Thankfully, in Scream VI, everyone is in on the joke again. The film sees the return of now franchise favorites Jena Ortega and Melissa Barrera, on the run from Ghostface and increasingly willing to embrace their own inner serial killer, if it means staying alive.
8. When Evil Lurks
The most distubing imagery of the year lies within the frames of When Evil Lurks, a Spanish, Shudder original from director Dámian Rugna. The story follows a father trying to insulate his neighborhood and family from the rising tide of a possession epidemic, seemingly everyone around him turning into demonic zombies. It’s an absurd premise that Rugna directs straight, without humor, without respite. A spiritual successor to the seething 2013 Evil Dead, the movie creates its own rules and mythology. You’ll have to re-evaluate every instinct you have about how far a movie can go to ingress into its audience more and more existential dread.
7. From Black
The critically lowest-rated movie on our list is From Black, a Shudder original that appears at first to be an aping of 2017’s A Dark Song. The protagonist in each is a mother who’s lost her child and resorts to tedious but visceral dark arts with hopes of resurrection. Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect) against type delivers a vulnerable portrayal of a mother and former addict. Unlike the near-solitary A Dark Song, peripheral characters trace the plot in From Black, with much told through police interrogation flashbacks. An investigator takes the logician’s perspective. An ex insults and aggravates Camp’s character. Each decision exacerbates even as she continues to search for the final choice that, once made, could reverse it all. Violently affecting and cathartic, From Black earns its own demon wings.
After a few well-arranged trailers and a big PR campaign, A24’s M3GAN was set to perform well. The PG-13 rating put people in seats, and from them, the oddly-contorted M3GAN toy sprung, a lifesize doll that seemed to be able to do — and cover up if needed — anything it could imagine. The trope of the malfunctioning robot is painfully common, but rarely do movies this competent and sprightly come of it. Twitchy leads Allison Williams (Get Out, Girls, The Perfection) and Violet McGraw (The Haunting of Hill House, Dr. Sleep) play off of one another enough to develop a small family on screen, even as M3GAN seeks to bifurcate and create her own. The dancer/actor in the M3GAN suit, Amie Donald, plays the bot as a glitched-out take on Michael Meyers, replete with a murder dance for posting to TikTok. Lifesize M3GAN dolls at the premiere went viral and sealed the deal for this genuine and deserving hit.
5. Brooklyn ’45
Shudder original Brooklyn ’45 finds a group of four former military brass assembling post-WWII to grieve after a friend’s suicide. Regretful of war crimes, they battle their own demons — among more literal ones — and sit for an uncharacteristic seance. The anachronism of psychic phenomena bubbling from WWII-era New York City is itself jarring and novel. The movie plays on claustrophobia, the impossibility of genuine redemption, and a bitter anger that turns every tongue sharp.
4. Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor
The 2000s beast of found footage horror never died, even if you stopped feeding it. Die-hard followers of the sub-genre continue to inspire green lights on these small-budget exercises. Nearly 25 years after The Blair Witch Project, there is still something so enthralling and personal about the handheld camera experience. Among the most successful found footage horror movies of the last decade was Hell House LLC. The film follows a group of friends who buy a rundown Victorian hotel to convert it into a Halloween “haunt.” Some intensely clever scares and visceral mental breakdowns turned the movie into a modern horror classic for fans.
The movie and its famed model clown continue to earn streams for director Stephen Cognetti, and Shudder was willing to foot the bill for this half-prequel, half-sequel, Godfather II style. The original is still the most effective of the series, but in the fourth film Origins, the filmmakers more than meet the realism bar of entry for found-footage freaks. A trio of self-styled internet sleuths Airbnb a mansion that’s mysteriously related to the hotel, hoping to catch paranormal activity on film. In the process, they uncover the history of the hauntings at both locations, told in part through flashbacks. Even though the climax lacks the saturated tension of a Blair Witch Project, the build-up packs enough jump to spill your Skinny Pop well before.
3. Talk to Me
The work of two comedy YouTubers coming out big as horror heads, Talk to Me is a twisted tale of a clairvoyant’s severed hand, cemented and forever open for a handshake seance. What happens when the movie’s central characters extend their hands is a TikTok-ready possession party. Every scene outdoes the last once the teens inevitably lose control. Charismatic performances keep the narrative moving through exposition cleanly, and sharp filmmaking punctuates in disturbing supernatural imagery laid over suburban Australia.
Between Talk to Me and Brooklyn ‘45, there seems to be a certain brand of self-inflicted violence in 2023 horror. It’s new and stands in contrast to most other hallowed eras of the genre, most of which treat the audience vicariously as voyeuristic victims of powers beyond them, fates unfortunate and undeserved. But to position characters as both victim and perpetrator and exact their own punishments is an upsetting newly calcified trend that mirrors recent understandings of generational trauma and the indulgent nature of masochism. Applying those recent developments in our collective consciousness retroactively to other eras is an exciting hyperrealism that the success of movies like Brooklyn ‘45 may signal for the immediate future of film.
2. The Exorcist: Believer
The only five-star horror movie of this year is the first 60 Minutes of The Exorcist: Believer. Let its later sins not give us the temptation, to underrecognize this as-yet greatest achievement of David Gordon Green’s career. Anchored by the stellar Leslie Odom Jr., an unnerving performance from Lidya Jewett, and a practical makeup team that beats the Hell out of anything Marvel could ever underpay its animators to render, the movie asks for only a small suspension of belief in its practical terror and in turn becomes one of the least safe and most fun horror movie experiences for your consideration this year. Shoulder-shruggers should revisit this one alone. Though the climactic team-up that feels a bit too much like Captain Planet ultimately undermines the movie’s virtues, this is the horror equivalent of Godfather III, and like a leaner, trimmed version of that flawed telling, any future director’s cut carries the distinct potential of terror and timelessness.
1. Poor Things
Part body horror, part romantic comedy, part arthouse film, part tragedy, Poor Things occupies an extremely rare space in this year’s box office. Some will quibble with its being classified horror. Consider the Cronenbergian gore, the dissonant strings that grate the sound design, the fish-eye lens claustrophobia — the feeling leaving that everything is backward.
A blistering rebuke of every male urge hidden behind supposed rationality, each chapter of Poor Things acts as a new takedown of a common manifestation of male psyche, finding the origins from which each arises and handily uprooting it with nonchalance and a touch of malice. Worse for those who may find the male characters sympathetic, Stone’s character Bella comes upon every insight from the natural course of her life and curiosity — like the America Ferrera monologue from Barbie come to life with ridicule in its sights and Victorian flash on its shoulders. Poor Things makes the useless parts of maleness look not just archaic and hypocritical, but boring. Advanced quickly, we should be grateful: almost all of it is archaic, hypocritical, and boring. That includes the parts purporting to be of high intellect, here revealed to be as common and thin as air. An existential wax meltdown in primary colors, the film is among the most frightening of the year — a different kind of dread.