Matt’s Favorites of 2023

2024/01/05 16:58:23 +00:00 | Matt Donato

Another year bites the dust, friends. Another year where I've watched too many horror movies, and now it’s time to face the impossible task of sorting the best into a ranked list. I’ve been doing it since my first year as a big-boy film critic almost a decade ago, but it never gets easier. I’ve seen over 130+ horror movies in 2023! Ten slots aren’t enough to capture the massive breadth of worthwhile horror titles you should consume. I won’t do it, dammit. I can’t.

…OK maybe I can but still, it’s harder than it looks! There are so many noteworthy films not listed, but that's the beauty of opinions and personal preferences. My list is mine and mine alone. Other critics will have their own takes, and more power to the variety of responses highlighting as many releases as possible. So let’s get to the best and then you can move on to the rest — I KID. But seriously, here are my favorite horror movies of 2023 in painstakingly particular order.

10) V/H/S/85

I’m a sucker for a well-balanced horror anthology, hence my affection for the V/H/S franchise. You take the good with the not-so-good, but I’m not sure there’s a sturdier sequel than V/H/S/85. There’s no real dud to ignore, and variety is at a premium. If I had to choose a favorite, it’d probably be Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “God of Death,” with Scott Derrickson’s “Dreamkill” not far behind. From Mexican earthquakes to digital demons born from 80s virtual reality headsets, unkillable boaters to shapeshifting beings, V/H/S/85 is an absolute blast as the singular chapters stack up to tell a whole story — a rare horror anthology that’s less about the highlights and more about consistency.

9) Dark Harvest

David Slade should be one of the busiest working directors in the horror genre. His elevation of Norman Partridge’s novel of the same name is a delectable Halloween treat that oozes October genre goodness. Slade does a tremendous job leaning into generational nastiness as 1960s adults force their offspring to participate in a cruel local ritual, as adolescent boys hunt a malevolent creature known as Sawtooth Jack. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking but remains insidiously entertaining since the special effects work is top-notch. Sawtooth looks spectacular, reminding of full-body creatures like Pumpkinhead, and the scenes of brutality are a seamless blend of practical crafts and animation. It’s a shame this one lost its planned wide release thanks to delays, because it deserved the biggest rollout possible versus a limited-as-heck run in Alamo Drafthouse theaters.

8) The Conference

The second-best slasher of 2023 isn't a Scream entry, nor anything else domestic, but a Swedish "Worksploitation" flick on Netflix called The Conference. Patrik Eklund's takedown of corrupt corporate culture is everything that 9-5'ers will find cathartic. Office stereotypes from the "cutthroat backstabber" to "morally bankrupt manager" find themselves hunted by the mascot of their future megastore, which they're permitted to build only after shady practices. Eklund and his co-writers layer dark humor atop a ruthless slasher template that doesn't skimp on deaths, as everything from beer cans to hot tubs to boat propellers are used during kill scenes. My praise goes hand-in-hand with a later entry on this list, another slasher that brings us back to the heavily praised slasher era where Jason and Michael types ruled horror coverage.

7) Haunted Mansion

I feel like I’m one of the only people who’s high on this year’s Haunted Mansion reboot? Writer Katie Dippold lays the foundation for a soulfully wholesome gateway horror film that doesn’t shy away from the hardest adolescent questions about death, which works wonderfully through a Disney lens. Director Justin Simien leans into the inner workings of Disney’s famous spirit-infested attraction, paying much homage to the ride itself. Then there’s an all-star cast including Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and countless others who are allowed to be a bit goofy in the otherwise grimly serious supernatural scenario. All that comes together as a family-friendly horror spin on signature Disney themes that shines as a haunted house tale geared for the earliest budding horror fans.

6) Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar

Did I expect to cry as Army of the Doomstar concludes? Not in a bajillion years. Brendon Small's metalhead animated series has been a part of my life since the Duncan Hills coffee jingle and is indeed a property I cherish, but still, Metalocalypse isn't known for its tear-jerking moments. It's a horror-comedy series rooted in satanic rituals and bonehead bandmate antics, all present in this epic conclusion. Bloodshed is bountiful, vocal cameos still earn their chuckles, yet Small and co-writer Tommy Blacha's greatest achievement with Army of the Doomstar is paying off over a decade's wait with a direct love letter to their fans. The band's journey is painfully self-aware, ending on such a triumphant high as the "Metalocalypse" rages to a volcanic finale. The music rips, violence is illustrated with emphasis, and Dethklok faithful are given the ending we deserve as the power of the Doomstar surges through us all.

5) The Sacrifice Game

Shudder has become a reliable source of new original horror films, none better this year than The Sacrifice Game. Jenn Wexler’s sophomore feature makes for a perfect stealth combo with another one of my favorite movies of the year, The Holdovers, as the Blackvale all girls school gets these Tarantino-universe visitors with murder on their minds. The ensemble is eclectic and on-point, including everyone from indie horror superstar Chloë Levine to Aladdin headliner Mena Massoud. It’s a creepy, Christmas-y standout that plays into satanic panic with a psychotic grin, and lets a bevy of talented actors shine as death decks the halls with gore. Wexler is on her game something fierce, with a shout-out to co-writer Sean Redlitz as well.

4) Thanksgiving

Eli Roth finally made Thanksgiving, and it was worth the decade-plus wait. It’s been heralded as the second coming of American mainstream slashers, oozing that ooey-gooey 80s throwback gore through a 2000s lens. The Massachusetts accents are thick, bloody runoffs thicker, and holiday horror appeal is through the roof. Roth “horrorfies” everything from gigantic people-sized ovens to parade floats to stabby corn cob holders, all at the hands of a Plymouth-bred killer in John Carver. It’s all a bit silly, but silly to the point that we want our aggressively-themed slasher films. Thanksgiving boasts killer gore, a nasty attitude, and all the things we love and have been missing about watching this breed of slasher on the big screen (which you can read more about in my official review of Thanksgiving for Daily Dead). 

3) Evil Dead Rise

Good on Lee Cronin for coming out swinging with Evil Dead Rise. “Deadites in a Los Angeles apartment complex” works just as well as the isolated woodland entries, because it’s always about how the Necronomicon torments poor souls. Cronin’s approach blends Sam Raimi’s sense of humor and Fede Alvarez’s brutally dark terrors, hinged on a knockout Deadite performance by Alyssa Sutherland. Her line deliveries are tremendous, on par with the other reigning Deadite Queen, Jane Levy. It’s different enough between religious implications and the three-headed Maurader at the end, but still wholly respectful of the Evil Dead presence fans come to expect. Plain and simple, Evil Dead Rise is a goddamn riot.

2) Godzilla Minus One

There’s nothing wrong with Legendary’s current Godzilla slate, but Godzilla Minus One is on another level. Toho International understands there’s more to Godzilla’s fury than kaiju brawls, this one taking place in an already war-ravaged 1940s Japan. Save your comments about how Godzilla Minus One isn’t horror — BIG SCALY MONSTER THAT SPEWS ATOMIC BREATH DESTROYS CITIES LIKE M. BISON ON A TUESDAY. It’s still a horror movie and still on my list. I adore the period approach, Godzilla special effects, and the overwhelming sensation when cityscape architecture starts toppling over. It’s more than “big dumb smashy” without sacrificing the rampages we expect from a Godzilla movie, and immediately one of my favorite Godzilla movies of all time.

1) When Evil Lurks

When Evil Lurks makes last year’s feel-bad phenom Speak No Evil look like Five Nights at Freddy’s in comparison. Argentinian filmmaker Demián Rugna proves Terrified was no fluke and outdoes himself, inflicting a ruthless possession hybrid upon viewers who love to wallow in misery. It’s firing on cylinders that some horror movies never even engage between grotesque, puss-filled gore, breathless tension that strikes with primal rage, and terrifying deviance that takes the infected Deadite approach to possession storytelling. Rugna is one of the best working today when it comes to delivering what genre fans might consider “traditional” horror, and he does so with an unmatched (at the moment) fearlessness. When Evil Lurks is the realest of deals — the textbook definition of what should be in the dictionary next to “horror.”


Extra Goodies!

Dead Island 2: Haus

I’ve never been burned by a video game as severely as the bug-plagued Dead Island for Xbox 360. My experience was so bad I almost swore off the sequel’s release, but as a new(ish) resident of Los Angeles, I couldn’t pass up the chance to live the zombie apocalypse in places like Hollywood Boulevard or Santa Monica’s beaches — and I’m glad I did. The game is a massive upgrade with plenty of replay value, but that’s not even the best part. In October, a DLC titled “Haus” dropped that’s a full-on Lynch meets Romero acid trip.

You’re invited to a private residence that gives eat-the-rich vibes and quickly catches up to speed with a latex-wearing collective (welcome to Malibu). You start talking to decapitated heads, some of which you must successfully carry through zombie-infested corridors, as the story spins out of control. Settings include a 60s modernist mansion upon entrance, then this soundstage cul-de-sac that’s a mockery of the picket-fence American dream, then a surrealist forest where a piggy mascot’s greasy diner exists (you must vanquish said piggy). It’s bananas, exploiting the abstract fun to be had with Dead Island 2. It’s also immensely scarier than the original campaign, thanks to close-quarters production designs, up there with the spookiest horror gaming I’ve completed in 2023.

Ice Nine Kills Orchestral Vinyl

At the intersection of metalcore and horror fandom is the Boston-bred act Ice Nine Kills, one of my favorite current bands. Songs like “Assault & Batteries” (about Chucky) and “Hip to be Scared” (based on American Psycho) pay homage to the nightmares of cinema, mere tastes of a monster track list with countless hits. I love their headbanging breakdowns set below Friday the 13th’s “ki ki ki, ma ma ma,” but then, this year, Ice Nine Kills showed a softer side and released fully orchestral versions of their popular releases. I’m a metalhead at heart, but also a fan of beautiful musical compositions, with a soft spot for movie scores, which is how I feel Ice Nine Kills’ orchestral renditions sound. Let’s put it this way: Metal Ice Nine is go-to gym tunes, Orchestra Ice Nine is go-to writing music. I love ‘em both, and hope INK repeats the practice as they continue to kick out the horror-themed jams.

Dave Horror Episode

I’ve been listening to Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky) since his YouTube videos about classic male pregames and whatnot, but nothing in his lyrics would prepare me for a very horror-influenced episode of his FX show Dave. In “The Storm,” Dave’s tour bus veers off course to generously pick a superfan up en route to Memphis but gets stranded at the fan’s family home thanks to a Category 3 hurricane. What unfolds is a tense and horror-tinged lockdown episode as Dave’s heathen entourage finds themselves staying with a conservative Christian family (allusions to a Texas Chain Saw-like clan hiding distressing secrets). Between the violent weather, heavy shadows, and shady personalities, “The Storm” continually teases a veer into red-state slasher territory as a pleasant switcheroo compared to the show’s typical tone. Dave doing horror was not on my 2023 bingo card, but life is full of beautiful surprises y’all.

  • Matt Donato
    About the Author - Matt Donato

    Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.