7. The Pope’s Exorcist (USA)
There’s only so many hours in the day, days in the week, etc., and that means that sometimes I miss a movie on release. Despite loving Julius Avery‘s Overlord (2018), I hesitated on his latest because word wasn’t good and possession movies typically aren’t my scene. What a fool I was. A fully committed Russell Crowe speeding around Rome on a Vespa while battling demons and giving the bird to authority? Rather than get bogged down in the usual possession/exorcism tropes, the film lets Crowe cut loose as he goes head to head with a devilish entity and a deadly secret from the bowels of the Vatican. This movie is a blast and after enjoying one hundred minutes of supernatural fun and entertaining character beats you’ll be clamoring for a sequel. Lucky you, one’s already been announced.
6. Lovely Dark and Deep (USA)
Anyone who’s been in one knows that forests are the scariest places on Earth. You can keep your old, dark mansions and such — a deep, dark forest, especially on a moonless night, is fucking terrifying. Writer/director Teresa Sutherland knows that her feature debut has two lead stars — Georgina Campbell, and the woods themselves — and Lovely, Dark, and Deep is a showcase for both as one and/or the other occupy every frame. They pull you into the nightmare, from the atmospheric unease of the forest to the growing sense that something is very, very wrong out there. Sutherland’s debut delivers an increasingly unnerving tale that tightens its grip with mystery, revelation, and genuine chills. It’s a mystery of sorts as our protagonist struggles to find out what’s happening around her, and the answers give us just enough to land this among the top eco-horror chillers out there. And not for nothing, but we also get at least two genuinely unnerving and creepy sequences that find scares without relying solely on jumps. Great stuff.
5. Scream VI (USA)
The Scream franchise has been a mixed bag over the years, but every entry has its fans because enough of the core elements (including the whodunnit, the gore, and the fun) typically bring the goods each time out. The latest sequel, and possibly the last for a while, is one of the best even if the mystery element falters. (The franchise is in a rut with its Ghostface(s), so one look at the film’s poster tells you who the killer/killers are.) The kills are fantastic extending beyond just the gore to include some stellar set-pieces, and the script and performances ensure the fun runs through until the very end. A big plus here is the choice to move the action from a small town to the Big Apple as it opens up new opportunities that the film exploits beautifully including a great sequence on a packed subway car. This is the entry that would make Wes Craven proud.
4. Talk to Me (Australia)
The second of only two feature debuts to make this year’s list, this Australian chiller comes from brothers Danny & Michael Philippou who give the possession subgenre a fun and electric twist. Teens play party games with a mysterious hand that allows a spirit to enter their body for a limited time… unless they mess up the rules. Grief plays a role here, but while too many films in recent years have focused on that emotion in increasingly dull ways, here it’s used as a catalyst for some memorable horror sequences. The opening sequence hits hard before pulling back to allow a brief break from the madness, and all of it comes with compelling performances and striking visuals. This ain’t your mammy’s possession movie, and it rocks.
3. Sick (USA)
John Hyams‘ slick, Covid-related slasher actually premiered in 2022 at a festival, but as it released in 2023 — and that’s when I first saw it — it’s making the cutoff here. And it’s making the cut because it’s the year’s best slasher. Two friends at a remote cabin, a vicious killer offing those around them before closing in, and a wickedly smart script courtesy of Kevin Williamson and Katelyn Crabb making all of it sing. The film is one of the very few thrillers that acknowledge Covid without feeling distracted by or drowned in the concept. Here it’s used to capture feelings of suspicion and blame in creatively entertaining ways making for a compelling whodunnit. The icing on the cake, of course, is some terrific action beats, the kind that Hyams more traditionally calls home, and it gives the horror an exciting energy on through the conclusion. Yes, it’s on Peacock, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving it a spin.
2. Godzilla Minus One (Japan)
Every entry in the epic Godzilla franchise can be labeled as a horror movie if only because there are large monsters running amok. Too few of them, though, actually feel like horror films. Writer/director Takashi Yamazaki understands the difference, and in addition to delivering big action thrills, his Godzilla feature also delivers the hard-hitting horror of fear, loss, and hopelessness… along with a large monster running amok. Godzilla causes massive amounts of damage and human carnage, and we feel it the visuals, (brilliant) score, and affecting performances. That last point is important as unlike too many past Godzilla films, the human characters are flesh and blood people we actually care about. It all combines to make for a film that grabs hold of your heart and mind delivering real thrills and even some tear-worthy sequences. This is big, emotionally bold entertainment that’s not only one of the year’s best horror films and best action films, but also one of 2023’s best films, period.
1. When Evil Lurks (Argentina)
As mentioned a couple times above, possession films typically aren’t for me. They’re usually far too predictable and restrained in their good versus evil, Jesus will save you nonsense. Demian Rugna saw my concerns and gifted me (and the rest of you, I suppose) with one of the finest possession films ever, in part because it ignores the tropes in favor of pure horror, grim fun, and some fascinating world-building. The film opens in a world already decimated by possessions, where people have moved to small towns to avoid the frequency of evil illnesses. The church, they point out early on, has already folded, and the only hope people have of avoiding this demonic plague is to follow certain rules with the afflicted. It all goes spectacularly to hell, and no one, not even the little ones, are safe from a vicious fate. Horror is more than just a genre here, it’s a sense of being as characters are trapped in fascinatingly twisted nightmare.
Honorable mentions: Bird Box: Barcelona, The Boogeyman, Dark Harvest, The Deep Dark, A Haunting in Venice, M3gan, New Life, No One Will Save You, Renfield, Unwelcome, The Wait
Movies I’ve either not seen or just don’t like as much as you do (I’ll let you wonder which is which): Birth/Rebirth, Cobweb, Infinity Pool, It’s a Wonderful Knife, Knock at the Cabin, The Last Voyage of the Demeter, Perpetrator, Skinamarink, Suitable Flesh, The Tank, Totally Killer