2023: the year in horror

A host of Exorcist knock-offs, Dracula retreads and franchise instalments shows that tradition is still strong – but the underlying theme of today’s horror is the collapse of all the old certainties.

11 December 2023

By Kim Newman

Pearl (2023)
Sight and Sound

Either to honour or to desecrate the 50th anniversary of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), possession was the big theme of mainstream horror in 2023 – culminating in David Gordon Green’s clumsy, needless reboot/sequel The Exorcist: Believer. That wasn’t even the loopiest, most entertaining Exorcist knock-off in a year that stretched to Russell Crowe in and as The Pope’s Exorcist, Taissa Farmiga’s rematch with a demon in the form of a churchwoman in The Nun II, and Jacobo Martinez’s grittier 13 Exorcisms. NB: all of these purport to be drawn from real cases of possession, though any factual basis has long since been abandoned for Conjuring spin-offs and Exorcist follow-ups – as ever, ‘based on a good story’ is a more promising tagline than ‘based on a true story’.

Far more original, interesting takes on the theme have included Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me, in which temporary possession becomes an internet challenge; Demián Rugna’s When Evil Lurks, in which an epidemic of possessions rewrites the rules of the subgenre; Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s what-if-Regan-out-of-The-Exorcist-guested-on-a-1970s-talk-show found-footage film Late Night with the Devil; and Nick Kozakis’s resolutely anti-clerical revisiting of the Exorcist premise Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism. Three of these films are Australian, which suggests something is afoot down there.

Vampires also put in their usual showing, though an inability to cross running water, or something, meant that André Øvredal’s The Last Voyage of the Demeter didn’t make it to UK cinemas alongside Chris McKay’s black comedy Renfield (Nic Cage plays Dracula as the worst boss in the world) or even to a streaming platform next to Pablo Larraín’s icily gothic satire El Conde (General Pinochet as Dracula). More romantic were a pair of French essays in the subgenre, Romain de Saint-Blanquat’s La Morsure (‘The Bite’) – a 1960s-set teen picture with a lurking, cloaked homme fatal – and Adrien Beau’s The Vourdalak, an adaptation of a much-filmed Russian folk-horror tale which inverts the concept of A Muppet Christmas Carol by having one key character (the vampire) played by a puppet interacting with regular, mostly doomed folk. Other major monster-movie arcana got makeovers at different ends of the budget spectrum, with Eddie Izzard holding court in Joe Stephenson’s theatrical Doctor Jekyll and Emma Stone as a patchwork Bride of Frankenstein in Yorgos Lanthimos’s lavish, lush, steampunk picaresque Poor Things.

Cocaine Bear (2023)

Off-the-peg horror ground on, as ever – with possible franchises-to-be (M3gan, Cocaine Bear, Five Nights at Freddy’s) raising hopes that sequels might improve on the shortcomings of initial instalments, while others (Unwelcome, The Boogeyman, Cobweb, There’s Something in the Barn) are complete and effective in themselves – which isn’t to say their menaces won’t be back. Middling but serviceable entries in the Evil Dead, Insidious, Scream, Meg and Saw sagas eclipsed a few by-the-numbers efforts (It Lives Inside, The Piper, The Blackening). Worst in show in this category is Rhys Frake-Waterfield’s Winnie-the-Pooh Blood and Honey, which demonstrates that just because it’s legal to make something is no reason to toss out a minimal effort and greenlight sequels or spin-offs on the same pattern.

The year’s best sequel was Ti West’s Pearl, which is due to be extended into a trilogy – almost entirely on the strength of Mia Goth’s commitment to weirdness, which was also on view in Brandon Cronenberg’s gruesome, witty Infinity Pool. The likelihood that more inventive one-off horrors will find their home on streaming platforms was furthered by a couple of fresh, under-the-radar efforts – Brian Duffield’s near-wordless home invasion/alien bodysnatcher showcase No One Will Save You and Nahnatchka Khan’s knowing Back to the Future-but-with-a-slasher entertainment Totally Killer.

Auteur horror offered M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, at once an enclosed drama and an apocalypse; Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, a blistering, ambitious exercise in self-flagellation which is a lot funnier and stranger than it got credit for; and Joanna Hogg’s two Tildas take on the haunted hotel visit The Eternal Daughter. These worthy filmmakers are at risk, however, of seeming mainstream and above-ground when compared to a clutch of very independent, challenging personal works which are likely to polarise critics and audiences but represent work being done at the bloodier cutting edge of genre… the Adams Family’s Where the Devil Roams, Laurence Vannicelli’s Mother, May I?, Sean Hogan’s To Fire You Come at Last, Barnaby Clay’s The Seeding, Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark and Deep (and its doppelganger Joe Lo Truglio’s Outpost), Chris Cronin’s The Moor, Ted Geoghegan’s Brooklyn 45, John Pata’s Black Mold, Steven Pierce’s Herd, Paris Zarcilla’s Raging Grace, Onur Tukel’s Poundcake, Pete Ohs’ Jethica, Robert Morgan’s Stopmotion, Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink and Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters. The overall theme of this selection of films – perhaps of 21st century horror in general, minus the franchise stripmining – is collapse, whether mental or societal, and often of narrative itself as horrific effects and imagery (and sounds) overwhelm conventional storytelling in favour of the logic of the nightmare.

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