Not even a full month in, 2023 is already shaping up to be a strong year for horror. January alone delivered a new horror icon, an acclaimed pandemic-themed slasher, and a low-budget experimental film that has all of TikTok sleeping with the lights on.
Here's our guide — which will be updated throughout the year — to the horror films critics say are worth checking out in 2023, ranked in ascending order of greatness:
4. Candy Land (Video on demand)
We have an urgent warning for parents everywhere: Do not watch Candy Land with your kids assuming it's a film version of the board game.
The movie, from director John Swab, is instead a gross, grimy grindhouse slasher — think of it as the 2023 equivalent of last year's X, though it never quite reaches the heights of that Texas Chain Saw Massacre throwback. Candy Land revolves around a group of truck stop sex workers who take in a young woman, Remy, from a religious cult after she is seemingly abandoned. Remy is trained in becoming a "lot lizard" like them, but as the film explores the dangers of extreme religious devotion, it becomes clear not all is what it seems, and people start turning up dead.
Candy Land feels like it's pulled straight out of the 1970s — complete with old-school wipe transitions — and it isn't afraid to lean into trashy exploitation territory with plenty of gory kills, explicit sex, and morally reprehensible people. But what makes the movie stand out is that Swab treats all the sex worker characters compassionately, depicting their jobs as legitimate work and the group as its own sort of family. The film shines "a light on a world that many look down upon" and, in the process, makes viewers "fall in love with its imperfect characters," Dread Central's Mary Beth McAndrews notes. Indeed, the leads are likable and sharply drawn, not mere caricatures, and Olivia Luccardi's Remy is especially compelling.
Swab captures the dinginess of the film's locale and ensures the truck stop always feels like a real place with a history, and there's something oddly engrossing about learning the ins and outs of an operation that these characters have down to a science. The bloody kill scenes also look impressive for a film that clearly doesn't have the biggest budget in the world. While "less conceptually adventurous" than Ti West's X and its prequel Pearl, the film is "not without its fair share of pleasurable nastiness," writes The New York Times' Beatrice Loayza.
Just imagine watching Candy Land in a double feature projected on a grainy 35mm film print with cigarette burns on the frame, and you'll be in the right mindset for a good time.
3. Sick (Peacock)
Scream writer Kevin Williamson returns to the slasher genre with the lean, mean COVID horror flick Sick — and even if you're sick of content about the pandemic by now, don't sleep on this one.
The Peacock original follows two young girls who quarantine at a lake house during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to find themselves terrorized by a masked killer. Williamson, the writer behind the Scream series, co-wrote and produced the film, and you can see the DNA of that franchise on display, especially when it comes to the nail-biting chase sequences. Much like Scream, a highlight is a tense faceoff with the killer in the cold open, which plays out mostly in one continuous shot. After that exhilarating start, Sick takes some time to kick back into motion. But once it does, it never slows down even for a second, making for a propulsive second half that provides a "white knuckle adrenaline rush," Bloody Disgusting's Joe Lipsett wrote. If you were one of those Scream fans disappointed by the lack of great chase scenes in the 2022 revival, look no further than Sick.
The movie really leans into the COVID of it all, and the pandemic isn't just a backdrop or something that's quickly brushed aside like at the start of Glass Onion. Not only do we see real news broadcasts featuring Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, but the story is fundamentally about life during lockdown, so much so that it couldn't have been told in a pre-pandemic world. A third-act reveal, in particular, makes that clear, and is what differentiates Sick from every other home invasion thriller of its kind. By the end, Williamson uses the pandemic to speak to our current cultural moment, much like he did with Scream, helping Sick to ultimately serve "as an amusing time capsule for the collective fear that has seized us these past three years," Variety's Peter Debruge said.
While not as subversive as Scream, Sick also gets props for being such a tight movie that makes remarkably efficient use of its time, wrapping up before it has overstayed its welcome and prior to even reaching the 80-minute mark. If excessive runtimes are a virus, here's one film that's immune.
2. Skinamarink (In theaters)
Skinamarink is almost guaranteed to spark a strong reaction: Depending on whether you're on the director's wavelength, you'll either flat-out despise it or find it to be one of the scariest movies ever made. It's a real coin flip.
The micro-budget chiller follows two young children who wake up at home to discover that their father has mysteriously vanished, as have the windows and doors of their house; random objects also inexplicably disappear from existence. It was shot in director Kyle Edward Ball's childhood home for just $15,000, so think of it as this decade's version of Paranormal Activity.
But unlike Paranormal Activity, Skinamarink plays out more like an experimental art project than a traditional narrative feature. It's all about maintaining a sickeningly evil tone and is comparable to a feature-length Creepypasta, but there's little in the way of plot or even characters; we almost never see the kids, but simply hear them whispering to one another, and much of the movie just consists of still shots of hallways, doors, and floors shot from low angles. For some audiences, this "no plot, just vibes" style gets tiring, creating a painfully slow viewing experience — as evidenced by the 46 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But those who fell into Skinamarink's twisted trance have walked away shaken. Ball's aim is to capture that bone-chilling sensation of being a child and waking up in the middle of the night with the petrifying sense that something is lurking around the corner. It might be the closest any movie has come to depicting the experience of having a nightmare on screen. Like a bad dream, it's strange, abstract, and sometimes nonsensical, but oppressively eerie in a way that leaves you begging to wake up. Collider's Chase Hutchinson described the "orchestra of abject horror" as "one of the decade's most exciting cinematic visions," while The A.V. Club's Matthew Jackson raved the "singularly nightmarish piece of horror filmmaking" is "one of the year's must-see genre films," and Pajiba's Jason Adams said, "To be quite frank I wasn't sure that I even could be this scared by a movie anymore."
Skinamarink also became a major word-of-mouth hit online, and especially on TikTok, largely thanks to a pirated copy leaking before its official release. "I've NEVER seen anything like this," user Heidi Wong said of the movie that's "traumatizing everyone on TikTok," noting, "Some people are saying this is literally the most disturbing thing they've ever seen."
Whether you love it or hate it, Skinamarink is certainly a bold filmmaking experiment unafraid to buck convention, making it mandatory viewing for horror fanatics if only because there has never been anything like it. But as with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, don't be surprised to see a wave of imitators.
1. M3GAN (In theaters)
Movies that become viral sensations prior to release don't always live up to the hype — we're looking at you, Snakes on a Plane. But M3GAN managed to meet and even exceed expectations, satisfying critics and audiences by providing an experience as campy and fun as anyone who loved its bonkers trailer could have hoped.
Allison Williams stars in this modern spin on Child's Play as a roboticist, Gemma, who takes in her newly orphaned niece, Cady. Finding herself ill-equipped for raising a child, Gemma introduces Cady to her latest creation: M3GAN, an advanced robotic companion powered by artificial intelligence who can be her new best friend. But it isn't long before M3GAN turns deadly, and bloody murders ensue.
M3GAN became an internet obsession as soon as its trailer dropped in October, due in large part to the title character's goofy pre-murder dance. Thankfully, that's precisely the tone the movie is going for, mixing comedy and horror to make for a laugh riot that's always in on the joke. BuzzFeed News' Izzy Ampil noted M3GAN is "both weirder and funnier than expected even after months of hype," though, coming from the writer of the gloriously wacky Malignant, we should have expected nothing less. But this isn't a "turn off your brain to enjoy the ride" situation: M3GAN still tells a solid, if familiar, cautionary tale about the dangers of becoming overly reliant on technology in raising kids, and it doesn't gloss over fleshing out its characters merely because it knows we're all just here for some laughs.
If there's a downside to M3GAN, it's the studio's decision to opt for a PG-13 rating rather than an R, which left some feeling like it was skimping on the blood during the kill scenes in a distracting way; this "dulls the edges of some of the more memorable sequences that might have benefited from even more gore," Derek Smith argued at Slant. But most critics felt that's not a deal-breaker because in this case, M3GAN's personality is the star of the show. The film understands how absurdly funny it is to see this well-dressed, American Girl doll-esque robot acting like an unpredictable nut, and when she randomly delivers a lullaby performance of "Titanium" like a weird little creep, it has the crowd hooting and hollering more than any gory kill could.
If the goal was to create an instantly iconic horror villain who stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Chucky and Annabelle, then mission accomplished. The time to start chiseling M3GAN's face onto the killer doll Mount Rushmore is now.