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Michael Gingold’s Best Horror Films of 2023

Tuesday, December 19, 2023 | Reviews

How good was the past year for horror cinema? So good that I’m bending the traditional best-list rules a little bit, and naming three movies tied for the number-one spot with nine more right behind, for a Top 12. It was a particularly good year for emerging talent in the genre; more than half of the films cited below marked their creators’ first time at the helm of a feature. And with one exception, they all hailed from the American independent sector or overseas.

As usual, this list is comprised of flicks that saw commercial release this past year, meaning some festival faves will have to wait for my 2024 list (keep both eyes out for YOU’LL NEVER FIND ME, NEW LIFE, LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL, BLACKOUT and WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS). There’s also the small caveat that I haven’t caught up with a few highly regarded films (SICK, INFLUENCER, NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU), and I’m still wrestling with whether the magnificent GODZILLA MINUS ONE can be considered a horror movie.

That said, the trio of films that land at the very top of my list are:

RAGING GRACE: To me, the fact that this one isn’t showing up on more best-of-horror surveys lately can only mean that a lot of their writers haven’t seen it. Writer/director Paris Zarcilla does more in his debut feature than demonstrate his genre chops; he reveals a true, incisive skill at investing a deeply personal story with a mounting sense of dread. Set in an expansive, foreboding London home, it focuses on struggling, undocumented Filipina Joy (Max Eigenmann) who takes a housekeeping job there—and has to keep the presence of her young daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) a secret. The home and its owners have secrets of their own, and as Joy discovers them, Zarcilla reveals a series of unpredictable, unnerving developments while cutting deep into the tensions of the immigrant experience. The result is riveting on both an emotional and visceral level.

TALK TO ME: Appropriately, there was quite a bit of talk about Danny and Michael Philippou’s leap from YouTube success stories to the longform movie realm, all of it deserved. From its startling opening scene, TALK TO ME immerses you in both a social-media-infused youth milieu that feels fully authentic and a supernatural scenario that starts out pretty scary and only gets more intense. The full ramifications of using an occult totem–in this case, an embalmed hand–to communicate with the spirit world are visited upon the young protagonists in a manner that combines the slow burn and bluntly brutal shocks, not to mention one of the year’s best black-humor gags (you know, the bit with the dog). It’s yet another modern-horror winner from the Australian filmmaking scene.

WHEN EVIL LURKS: 2023’s most flat-out terrifying viewing experience came from Argentina’s Demián Rugna, surpassing his previous, much-lauded TERRIFIED. The same day THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER returned one more time to the well first dug by William Friedkin, LURKS hit U.S. theaters and offered a unique take on the possession saga, in which demonic infestation has become commonplace and two brothers attempt to resolve such a case themselves–at their great peril, and that of everyone they love. Nasty and utterly uncompromising, it also demonstrates a fierce cinematic intelligence and a sympathy for its beleaguered leads…not that there ever seems a chance they’ll get off easily. This one has a memorable scene involving a dog too, though in this case it incorporates the most nerve-wracking buildup and OMG-horrific payoff in recent memory.

The rest, in alphabetical order:

ATTACHMENT: Danish director Gabriel Bier Gislason’s debut feature combines Jewish/occult mysticism, an absorbing domestic drama and a troubled romance, and serves all three sides of the story well. Josephine Park and Ellie Kendrick play Maja and Leah, who meet in the former’s home country of Denmark and seriously hit it off, then travel to Leah’s place in London after Leah suffers a violent seizure. Her mother Chana (Sofie Gräbøl) runs the house with an iron hand, and an already tense situation is made worse as Maja becomes aware of lurking supernatural presences. Gislason and his three leads maintain an engrossing tension even before the scary stuff comes to the fore, while doing full justice to the religious elements as well.

BIRTH/REBIRTH: Demonstrating once again the durability and malleability of the Frankenstein story, director Laura Moss jumps from award-winning shorts to a movie that delves deep into the ethics and consequences of playing God. Marin Ireland, rapidly becoming a genre MVP after THE DARK AND THE WICKED, THE EMPTY MAN, THE BOOGEYMAN and others, stars as Rose, a pathologist who believes death is curable, and proves it by resuscitating a little girl. She’s alive!–but not quite herself anymore, and as Rose and the child’s mother Celie (Judy Reyes) try to raise her, the ramifications of what they’re doing become seriously troubling and occasionally bloodcurdling. Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien’s script fully engages with the ethical themes the actions of the two women bring up, and doesn’t let anyone off the hook–including the viewer.

BROOKLYN 45: In a year when OPPENHEIMER and GODZILLA MINUS ONE addressed the aftermath of WWII in terms of the big picture, writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s single-location horror-drama took a much more ground-level and quite compelling approach. A small group of friends/veterans gather in a Brooklyn brownstone after the close of the combat, during which some of them committed heinous acts in the name of their country. A séance intended to contact one man’s deceased wife leads to a whole bunch of figurative demons being exposed, as the gathering becomes a hothouse of escalating paranoia that tests their allegiances. Among a sterling cast including Anne Ramsay, Larry Fessenden, Jeremy Holm and Kristina Klebe, the standout is Ezra Buzzington, in his second turn for Geoghegan (after MOHAWK) as a military man who disguises his prejudices as duty.

EVIL DEAD RISE: The sole studio picture in this lineup is one that fully maintains the gory/giddy punch of the four-decade-old low-budget sensation that spawned it. Scripter/director Lee Cronin changes things up a bit, switching from a cabin in the woods to a rundown apartment building in the heart of a city, while maintaining the hurtling nightmare pace and mile-wide streak of black humor that have made Sam Raimi’s original trilogy into perennials. He also doesn’t skimp on the red (and black) stuff; this R-rated adventure may be even gorier than the original, which had to go out unrated in 1983.

HERD: Honoring what made George A. Romero’s zombie movies great while addressing up-to-the-minute sociopolitical concerns, Steven Pierce’s Midwest-set opus is the latest proof that new life can still be breathed into the undead genre. When a lesbian couple (Ellen Adair and Mitzi Akaha) find themselves caught in the midst of a rural ghoul plague, they’re taken in by a militia group (whose leader is played by Holm in another strong turn). As the infected and a rival group of survivalists pose external dangers, the possibility of their relationship being found out by their saviors poses an internal threat. While Pierce, helming his first narrative feature, and co-writer James Allerdyce emphasize gripping character-based drama and suspense over flesh-ripping bloodshed, they make sure the horrific beats deliver the goods.

HUESERA: THE BONE WOMAN: There have been a lot of fright films about women suspecting there’s something wrong with their pregnancies, but here’s one in which the very concept of motherhood drives its heroine to frightened distraction. When Valeria (Natalia Solián) manages to conceive after many unsuccessful attempts, some in her family are thrilled, and others are unsure about her suitability as a mother–as is Valeria herself. It doesn’t help when she begins experiencing haunting visions that may or may not be triggered by her precarious mental state, and Solián gives one of the year’s best performances as Valeria struggles with these waking nightmares, her own doubts and the doubts of others. Mexican writer/director Michelle Garza Cervera, who also has a background in prize-winning shorts, and co-scripter Abia Castillo make HUESERA the best kind of slow-burn chiller–one anchored by their uncommon skill at probing troubled sides of the female psyche.

INFINITY POOL: The worst vacation you ever took was likely a cakewalk compared to what happens to blocked writer James (Alexander Skarsgård) in and around a resort in a foreign land. He attracts the attention of Gabi (Mia Goth), who at first appears to be a somewhat too-enthusiastic fan but soon leads James down a rabbit hole of perversity and body horror that seems to have no end. Brandon Cronenberg’s third feature may be his most off-the-rails venture yet, veering from the graphically grisly and fleshy to the surreal and back, yet there’s always the sense of a guiding vision behind it. Goth also, after her remarkable one-two punch of X and PEARL last year, gets as crazy as she’s ever been, fitting right into a study of obsession and debauchery that challenges you to go along for the ride, and rewards you for doing so.

NIGHTSIREN: A Slovakian/Czech folk-horror fable that deals with very trenchant real-world concerns, this is set in a modern mountain village that nonetheless feels like a land that time forgot. Šarlota (Natália Germáni) returns to this village to claim her recently deceased mother’s inheritance, and becomes caught up in her family’s much more fateful legacy. The locals still believe in witchcraft, and as a sickness overtakes the area, they find a convenient scapegoat in Šarlota, while the film becomes a harrowing chronicle of how suspicion of sorcery can combine with ingrained misogyny to tragic ends. Writer (with Barbora Námerová) and director Tereza Nvotová maintains a consistently eerie mood that hints at the presence of the unnatural, even as the story’s true darkness lies within human souls.

SKINAMARINK: Easily the most divisive genre outing of the year—and any movie that can both enrapture and piss off so many people definitely wins a place in a survey of the year’s highlights. The reactions seem to be divided between people who can hook into the way filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball taps and recreates the frightening formlessness of childhood nightmares, and those for whom it was just too abstract and suggestive. This writer was squarely in the former camp, caught up in the way Ball drops visual and aural hints of the terrors threatening a couple of little kids trapped alone in their house one night, and lets our minds fill in the awful details.

Others I especially enjoyed in 2023 include THE BLACKENING, FINAL CUT, A HAUNTING IN VENICE, IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, M3GAN, SATANIC HISPANICS, SUITABLE FLESH, THANKSGIVING and V/H/S/85, with honorable mentions to SCREAM VI and SAW X, both better than one would expect for movies this deep into their franchises. As for the worst of 2023, there really is only one obvious choice…

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).