Saturday, January 6, 2024

Matt Malpica Reifschneider's Top 20 Horror Films of 2023

 Tis the season for the Blood Brothers Top Lists of the Year! 


Although I felt as if 2023 wasn’t nearly as strong a year for horror films as some of the previous ones, overall, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have some fantastic gems throughout the year. Here is my Top 20 Horror Films of 2023 for your reading pleasure.

As always, this list is hardly as complete as I would like it to be, and it’s utterly subjective as these are my 20 favorite horror films of the year. If there’s a great horror film I’ve missed, please don’t hesitate to comment on the article or social media post to share your lists or favorites of the year. 


20. Falling Stars [dir. Richard Karpala, Gabriel Bienczycki]


Although this indie cosmic horror drama has yet to get a wider release, this was one of the highlights of the Telluride Horror Show this year. Its subtle world-building, where falling stars represent witches coming to Earth to take people for their yearly harvest, is not nearly as daunting as one would assume. It’s smartly woven into its plotting and characters to deepen their familial connections and expectations. It’s very much a slow burn, but Falling Stars is one that definitely will find its indie audience once released for its strong characters and slowly unraveling narrative. 


19. Where the Devil Roams [dir. Toby Poser, John Adams, Zelda Adams]


We’ve been huge fans of the Addams Family here at Blood Brothers since The Deeper You Dig arrived on the scene, and their latest adventure into genre filmmaking might be their best. It’s definitely taking some big swings with its artistic angles, including its visual style that continually degrades as the film goes on, but its tale of carnival performers on the road makes Rob Zombie’s penchant for that life feel like it’s sorely lacking any real substance. It’s character drive despite its big thematic approaches and Zelda Addams continues to grow as a powerhouse performer.


18. Satanic Hispanics [dir. Eduardo Sánchez, Mike Mendez, Alejandro Brugués, Demián Rugna, Gigi Saul Guerrero]


Is there anything better than a horror anthology with a strong gimmick and distinctive voices powering its various segments? Nope. And Satanic Hispanics is just that. As with all anthologies, the mileage will vary for each viewer towards the various segments, but Satanic Hispanics manages to get tons of variation into the mix with various amounts of humor, horror, and heart throughout. Got ta give it to Demian Rugna and Gigi Saul Guerrero for delivering the two best ones that hit really hard in two very different ways. 


17. Evil Dead Rise [dir. Lee Cronin]


Sure, Evil Dead Rise might just be a bastardized combination of Demons and Demons 2 (two films that felt like Evil Dead knockoffs in their own right, albeit really fuckin’ good ones), but dammit if it doesn’t work. It’s further proof that the Evil Dead franchise can resurrect as many times as the Deadites and Lee Cronin is finding that balance of “new” and “old” to deliver a stellar entry into a stellar series. Bonus points for an incredible performance Alyssa Sutherland as a mom gone dead in this one. She truly gets to strut a powerful physical performance here while the film delivers on all of the Evil Dead style and gore. 


16. Run Rabbit Run [dir. Daina Reid]


Perhaps my first real “hot” choice on the list, Run Rabbit Run came with a lot of bad word of mouth in circles around me, particularly that it was ‘unoriginal’ and ‘boring.’ Well, say what you will, but this slow-burn, character-driven psychological haunter had me immediately and kept me invested. Nothing is original, so it’s all about execution, and Run Rabbit Run is all about the subtle frustrations of a past that never lets a person go. Sarah Snook continues to be a low-key nuclear reactor of an actress, and she gets to go through the entire rainbow of emotions here as she tries to figure out if her dead sister possesses her young daughter. Don’t sleep on this one. 


15. La Abuela [dir. Paco Plaza]


Paco Plaza is back, baby. Well, to be honest, he never really went anywhere. He’s been pretty consistent in delivering plenty of interesting films, but his latest - where a young woman has to deal with her slightly unnerving and possibly devious grandmother moving in with her - is something of a classic horror film with lots of personality and style to boot. The entire “old people are gross” aspect can sometimes be tiring, but Plaza handles it with just enough humanity and a tight knack for tension that La Abuela ended up being one of the year's surprise successes. 


14. Brooklyn 45 [dir. Ted Geoghegan]


Told like a stage play with its single setting and established ensemble of characters - including one iconic Larry Fessenden who anchored the film's entire tone immediately with his presence and performance - Brooklyn 45 was the little horror engine that could. It’s both intimate and ambitious, as it takes a relatively small idea and expands it with a slew of fascinating characters and their dynamics as they face off against the sins of their pasts, the sins towards one another, and the sins that come boiling to the surface. The horror of Brooklyn 45 isn’t necessary in its supernatural bend, which is effectively used in a minimal manner, but the horror of people who call themselves friends and heroes. Although I’ve been a huge fan of Geoghegan since We’re Still Here, Brooklyn 45 might be his best and most effective slice of filmmaking. 


13. Huesera: The Bone Woman [dir. Michelle Garza Cervera]


Folk horror gets a crunching addition with Huesera. Although the idea that psychological horror and body horror go hand-in-hand is hardly new, the ghostly folk horror of the cultural and social commentaries buried in this one make the combination irresistible. Huesera is ultimately a hollowing and harrowing experience and its themes and ending will leave viewers feeling all kinds of emotions. It’s a film that excites me to see what director Michelle Garza Cervera has up her sleeve next. 


12. It Lives Inside [dir. Bishal Dutta]


Despite some fantastic marketing, It Lives Inside was a film that sadly felt like it was undervalued in 2023. Coming in the wake of Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman (a decent film in its own right elevated by his direction), it felt like It Lives Inside was unfairly maligned as repetitive and disappointing when its villainous demon came to light. My argument? Hell no. It Lives Inside is a fascinating cultural stew focusing on the dichotomy of identity for a young Indian-American girl who needs to live with one foot in two worlds. Those worlds collide when a demonic force is unleashed, and the film has to nimbly bounce between classic mainstream horror beats and more artistic, societal, and character themes. Color me smitten, but It Lives Inside does play with the audience's expectations in fun ways. I’m curious if this one gets re-evaluated rather quickly in the near future as a missed classic. 


11. The Coffee Table [dir. Caye Casas]


Absolutely, positively, and undeniably, The Coffee Table is the feel bad movie of the year. Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not available for the mass public, but let me tell you - put this one on your list to look out for. It’s a film that so viciously writhes in its own horror that it is hard to watch. The vagueness of its premise is as haunting as the horrors that occur to the family at its center. Go in knowing as little as possible, revel in the deepest and blackest of its dark comedic streaks, and get emotionally destroyed by The Coffee Table. 


10. Dark Harvest [dir. David Slade]


Granted, my preference for horror tends to lean towards slower-burn, character-driven films, but Dark Harvest had me immediately. It’s a brutal combination of Pumpkinhead and The Purge with a fascinating time period setting, and David Slade slathers the damn thing in as much Halloween vibes as possible. It’s a film that will rub some folks the wrong way with how it bounces between massive lore-building and more mainstream horror aspects, but it has some of the best visuals of the year, and the sadness buried in its story really resonated under its horror. Slade is back, and I hope he’s here to stay. 


09. Enys Men [dir. Mark Jenkin]


There are plenty of throwback horror films to the 70s era, but rarely do films actually feel like they were made in the era and uncovered in 2023. Enys Men is one of those. Mark Jenkin makes a low-budget psychological horror film about isolation and insanity feel fresh, encapsalating the 70s aesthetic and tone. If I didn’t know better, this could have easily been a film included in some kind of lost 70s gems from Severin Films or Vinegar Syndrome. And it’s truly a gem. Don’t ask me what happens in the damn thing because Enys Men is all about the feeling and nightmarish descent into surrealism. Its stark visuals, fantastic lead performance, and unnerving tonality is simply effective. It’s an extremely slow burn, but boy, howdy, is it an experience. 


08. Seire [dir. Park Kang]


Oh, look, another nightmarish slow-burn horror film that blurs the lines between reality and dream while delivering intense character drama? In 2023? You don’t say. But this South Korean familial horror film manages to make the cut. The film digs deep into character drama (and terror) as a new father ignores his wife’s concerns about his newborn baby and possibly brings back a ghost from his past when he goes to a funeral. It’s themes around people dragging the ghosts of their past into their future is impactful, the performances are stunning all the way around, and there is such a sense of building dread to what WILL happen that it ends up being a fully unnerving experience. 


07. Late Night with the Devil [dir. Cameron Cairnes, Colin Cairnes]


What sounds like a gimmick with Late Night with the Devil, where footage of the final episode of a late-night talk show from the 70s showcases what happened when horrific events unfold live on TV, is actually one of the most potent character dramas of the year - horror or not. A stunningly impressive lead performance from David Dastmalchian anchors the film, the comedic punches work in conjunction with the building tension between characters and the horror that starts to unravel on the set, and the style of the entire film is so dynamic that it’s easy to be folded into its gimmick. While the film might not quite make the top five, it’s definitely one that will find its audience once it gets a wide release in the near future. 


06. In My Mother’s Skin [dir. Kenneth Lim Dagatan]


I’m a sucker for a dark fairy tale vibe, and, geez Louise, does In My Mother’s Skin bring that vibe home. What starts off as a fairly classic horror setup, albeit with the fascinating setting of the Philippines during World War II, where a husband from a family must leave his family of a wife and two kids to handle some war business, quickly becomes a film that would partner up very nicely with Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. In My Mother’s Skin quickly becomes a grim fairy tale of loss, broken promises, and monstrous cannibalism as it unfolds. The film went to Sundance for good reason and was unceremoniously dropped on Amazon Prime with little fanfare, so it might end up being one of the best-forgotten films of the year. Also, as a bonus, the film features one of the best child performances I’ve seen in a long time from the young girl in the house. She comes in swinging in this film. 


05. No One Will Save You [dir. Brian Duffield]


Although Hulu’s No One Will Save You suffered from some “too much hype and gimmick” for some folks going into the film, it deserves all the praise. A relatively dialogue-free experience, No One Will Save You is director and writer Brian Duffield showcasing his strength as a visual storyteller (after making his stamp as a writer for incredible films such as Underwater), and it makes No One Will Save You one of the best cinematic experiences I had all year. Its blend of home invasion horror with science fiction spectacle and insanity drives the film to an incredible pace, but it might be the performance of Kaitlyn Dever that ultimately sells the entire thing. My only complaint? I wish Disney/Fox/Hulu would release this limited in theaters. I would love it see it on the big screen. 


04. Birth/Rebirth [dir. Laura Moss]


Frankenstein gets a modern and horrifying update in Birth/Rebirth. When a mother loses her daughter suddenly, she uncovers that the hospital mortician has taken her daughter’s body to see if she can cure the ultimate disease - death. The dual chemistry between Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland has the push and pull of some of the great cinematic duos here, and the building horror of bent morals in the name of science and motherhood is palpable. Motherhood horror is definitely a central theme of the last couple of years, and Birth/Rebirth might be one of the best examples of it. 


03. Influencer [dir. Kurtis David Harder]


The tagline of Influencer reads, “Be careful who you follow,” and this strange modernization of the ideas in 1990s thrillers ends up being one of the most thrilling horror films of the year. Blending elements of Single White Female with a modern influencer angle, the film takes some wild twists and turns as we follow a young woman on vacation who meets an influencer at an almost empty resort. It’s the kind of thriller that rekindled my love of the genre, and its tightly woven script, fantastic performances, and wild third act make it one of the best of the year. 


02. Skinamarink [dir. Kyle Edward Ball]


Love it or hate it, Skinamarink was one of the biggest swings of 2023. I was fortunate enough to see the film in theaters, and in the same way that Skinamarink’s narrative is indescribable, the tonality and manner that this film hit me is relatively unexplainable. I sincerely white-knuckled it through my showing because the film made my anxiety so bad just sitting in the dark and waiting. It’s a film that is already well-noted for having a diehard fanbase and a diehard contingent of haters, so you’ll probably be aware of it when you read this list. It’s a film that hit on my primal fears so hard that it was sitting at #1 on my list for most of the year until the next entry came out.

01. When Evil Lurks [dir. Demián Rugna]


Demián Rugna did it again. He terrified audiences with his haunted house pseudo-anthology, Terrified, and now he’s out to utterly hollow out viewers with When Evil Lurks. The film is a sly combination of possession, folk horror, and virus disaster film in a way that I’ve never seen before, with some of the most horrifying sequences and visuals ever to be thrown onto the screen. It’s truly a nihilistic and shock-filled experience worth the gander - all while being such an impressively told story of family and the bonds that grow and break between them. Not only is this the best horror film of 2023, it might be the best horror film of the last 20 years. 


Written by Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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