Cinema in 2023 boasted a slew of surprise hits and surprise flops, but one constant was the Black presence in horror. Not necessarily a year of earth-shattering accomplishments, 2023 was for Black horror more about consistency and variety, broadening the typical Black roles into period pieces, ghost stories, mad scientist tales, horror-comedies, and family-friendly fare. As with last year, female leads in particular thrived, with about three-quarters of my “best of” list featuring Black women—something that can’t be said about most other genres.
21. Special Recognition
Honorable Mentions: Binged to Death, Carnifex, The Creeping, Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor, The Mill, Soul Mates, A Southern Haunting
Special Achievement Award: Akela Cooper, who, as the rare Black woman given the opportunity to write for major-studio horror releases, co-wrote two of the four top-grossing horror films of 2023: the excellent M3GAN and The Nun II, which was…also a movie.
Biggest Disappointment: The Exorcist: Believer, which saw director David Gordon Green, not content with savaging Halloween, drag another great horror franchise into the muck with his propensity for turning inherently thrilling subject matter into a tedious drudge populated by unlikable characters bickering with other unlikable characters. The Exorcist: Believer isn’t as bad as Halloween Kills or Halloween Ends, but it adds nothing to the Exorcist franchise and in fact takes from it, regurgitating its elements with hollow, clichéd results that aren’t nearly as unnerving as they think they are.
Special “So Bad It’s Good” Award: Half Sisters, about two half-sisters—one white and one Black—who try to kill each other for inheritance, takes Mommie Dearest hysterics to Fatal Attraction extremes with Uwe Boll execution. Plus racism. And wigs.
An acquired taste, this tonal oddball mixes campy high school hijinks with gross-out body horror in the tale of a Black teen girl (Kiah McKirnan) who discovers a supernatural gift for hyper-empathy, which she puts to use in tracking down a serial killer. Writer-director Jennifer Reeder continues her track record of diverse casts from her first two films, Knives and Skin and Night’s End, and for my money, this is the best (and definitely the most fun) all-around effort of the three. In the process, the movie features a rarity for horror: a (gasp) Black gay couple, rather than the more common interracial same-sex romance.
19. Dark Harvest
This slick adaptation of the standout 2006 Norman Partridge novel Dark Harvest changes some major plot points from the book, including switching the lead female character, Kelly, from white to Black (played by E’myri Crutchfield). Interestingly, although this turns the relationship between Kelly and the male lead (who remains the primary protagonist) into an interracial one, the film actually emphasizes the love angle more than the book, despite the story being set in the pre-Loving early 1960s. In doing so, it adds a new, racial dimension to her character’s desire to escape from the small town that is burdened by the annual Halloween ritual of hunting a pumpkin-headed creature that rises from the fields. Veteran director David Slade (30 Days of Night) lends his stylish touch, which, along with the unique concept, is enough to entertain, even though the adaptation can’t quite capture the magic of the novel.
18. Jagged Mind
Expanding the short film “First Date” from the Hulu series Bite Size Halloween into a feature film, this twisty thriller stars Maisie Richardson-Sellers as a Black woman who suspects that her white girlfriend is hiding something sinister. Spoiler alert: she is! Surprisingly, although the original short was less than five minutes long, the full-length movie doesn’t feel padded or overly drawn out. It’s unspectacular, sure, but still compelling as a Fatal Attraction-style thriller with a supernatural twist.
17. There’s Something Wrong with the Children
Evil kid flicks are always fun, and while this Blumhouse production is a bit more serious than most, it delivers popcorn thrills that help you forget how annoying the characters are. Margaret (Alisha Wainwright) is the least irritating of the bunch and thus ends up as the lead, one half of a childless couple who accompanies another couple—and their two kids—on a getaway during which something possesses the children and turns them even more devious than kids their age normally are.
16. The Reading
As you would expect, Mo’Nique does the heavy lifting acting-wise in this BET+ movie (produced by Lee Daniels) as a grief-stricken woman whose family was slaughtered during a home invasion. When a team of paranormal experts is invited into her home to conduct a psychic reading, they unwittingly unleash a murderous evil. Compensating for the mediocrity of the rest of the cast, Mo’Nique delivers a head-spinning performance that veers from heartbreaking to uproarious, but luckily, the film isn’t a one-trick pony. The script provides a wicked twist midway through that sends things spiraling, and the direction—from freshman filmmaker Courtney Glaudé—is assured, delivering an unexpectedly fun, fast-paced cat-and-mouse game.
15. Summoning Sylvia
This LGBTQ+ horror-comedy leans heavily on the comedy with laugh-out-loud silliness tempered with truisms about the perils of prejudice. In it, engaged Larry (Travis Coles) is dragged by his friends to a bachelor weekend at a supposedly haunted house where they must deal with not only the spirit of a conjured murderess but also the appearance of Larry’s volatile, homophobic brother-in-law-to-be. The comedic chops of the main cast and the playfulness of the script make this a hilarious romp that, despite its farcical appeal, ends up painting a sweet portrait of queer friendship.
14. The Sacrifice Game
This gory period piece set in the ’70s somehow culls a sense of freewheeling frivolity from the story of a Manson-like clan of aspiring cultists committing ritualistic killings in an effort to summon a demon. They end up in a girls’ boarding school that’s been shuttered for the winter break and houses only a teacher and a couple of outcast students—including Samantha (Madison Baines), who ends up serving as the closest thing we get to a hero in this twisty, darkly humorous tale where appearances can be deceiving.
13. Susie Searches
The always marvelous Kiersey Clemons headlines a stellar cast in this comedic thriller as an awkward college student and aspiring podcast crime solver who investigates the kidnapping of a schoolmate. Like a true-crime mystery, juicy twists and turns follow as things get darker and more dangerous. The film, like the character Susie herself, has a quirky, cringey appeal and remains likable despite any flaws.
12. Haunted Mansion
Perhaps the expectations that come with a Disney release were too high, but this Justin Simien (Bad Hair) adaptation of the Haunted Mansion park attraction was unfairly dismissed both commercially and critically. It’s genuinely funny and heartfelt with a star-studded cast that buys into the concept of a ghost tour guide (LaKeith Stanfield) hired to investigate the titular mansion by its new owner (Rosario Dawson). Granted, the film struggles to fit into the Disney mold, being a bit too dark (metaphorically and literally, with a washed-out blue hue that makes for a dreary viewing experience) with humor that at times feels a bit too adult (in tone and delivery rather than in content), but I can’t help but feel that if it had been released during the more thematically aligned Halloween season instead of the pressure-packed summer blockbuster season, audiences would have given it more of a chance.
A compelling blend of horror, comedy, and drama, this indie makes the most of its low budget and small run time, thanks to inventive direction, natural dialogue, a simple yet evocative and ultimately tender story, and a strong cast of basically three performers, including Ashley Denise Robinson as the titular “Jessica,” a woman who turns to the supernatural when she discovers that an unrelenting stalker has followed her to her new home.
10. We Have a Ghost
While not as high profile nor as grand in scale as Haunted Mansion, We Have a Ghost rivals the Disney film for the crown of best horror-themed family fare of 2023. At more than two hours, it’s a little longer than it needs to be, but it’s still entertaining and surprisingly emotional without becoming overly saccharine or pandering to kids. It’s also, like Haunted Mansion, a rare haunted house movie starring a Black family. What it lacks in scares it makes up for in comedic punch and elements of mystery that get darker than you might anticipate. Anthony Mackie headlines as the father of the household, but Jahi Winston really shines as the teenage son who befriends the spirit (David Harbour) and tries to solve the mystery behind his death.
9. The Last Voyage of the Demeter
This loose adaptation of “The Captain’s Log” chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula is set almost entirely on the ship that transports Dracula to England. Because the chapter in the book is so short, the film has plenty of room to expand on details, and it does so liberally, most notably adding two characters certain to provoke the ire of anti-woke alarmists: female stowaway Anna (Aisling Franciosi) and Black guy Clemens (Corey Hawkins). Against all odds, Clemens is the main hero, the determination needed to combat Dracula honed by his struggle to find a job as a doctor in a world that wouldn’t be ready to accept a Black doctor until Dr. Dre (who, coming full circle, Hawkins has also portrayed). Otherwise, the characters aren’t particularly compelling, but the cast is excellent and the movie’s primary appeal is driven by high production value, slick direction from André Øvredal (Trollhunter, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark), and one of the most breathtaking vampiric creature designs in any movie to date.
8. The Blackening
Arguably the best horror-comedy of the year, The Blackening features a magnificent ensemble cast of comedic talent and a wonderful concept that toys with the well-worn horror trope of the Black character(s) dying first. (Someone should really write a book about that.) It’s a playful romp from veteran director Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along) that wisely doesn’t veer into Scary Movie-like spoof territory, with a smart, Black culture-laden script from Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) and Dewayne Perkins. It’s rare that a horror film is written by either a Black woman or a Black gay man, and in this instance, it’s both.
7. The Strays
Not to be confused with this year’s “look who’s barking” talking dog movie Strays, this British film from first-time filmmaker Nathaniel Martello-White mixes paranoid thriller with social drama and biting satire that relishes the audience’s discomfort. In it, a Black woman (Ashley Madekwe) who has drunk the Kool-Aid of suburban bliss with her new white husband finds her life crashing down upon her when her Black past comes calling. It’s a challenging and divisive film—the characterizations are unhinged and just plain weird, almost to comedic effect—but it’s also delightfully original (down to the hilarious ending) in an industry full of copycats, the sort of ingenuity needed to propel Black horror to the next level.
This year’s forgettable Pet Sematary: Bloodlines could’ve learned a thing or two from this indie, which channels not only Pet Sematary, but also throws in a healthy dose of Frankenstein in the tale of a rogue doctor (Marin Ireland) who kidnaps the recently deceased 5-year-old daughter of an Afro-Latina nurse (Judy Reyes) and conducts experiments to bring her back to life. When the nurse finds out that the doctor was successful, the two begin a sort of co-parenting routine that involves continual sacrifice in order to keep the girl alive. Emotionally resonant with stunning performances from the two leads, Birth/Rebirth is a slow burn that ratchets up the stakes until things ultimately spiral out of control.
This Blumhouse slasher, co-written by Kevin Williamson, is set during the early days of the COVID pandemic and deftly mines the paranoia of the era to amp up the tension of the scenario of two college friends who quarantine together at a remote cabin, only to find themselves stalked by a mysterious figure. The two female leads—one Black (Bethlehem Million), one white (Gideon Adlon)—team up to serve as basically co-final girls, a refreshing spin on slasher norms that, combined with kinetic direction and a breakneck pace, delivers some of the biggest horror thrills of the year.
4. The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster
The shadow of Frankenstein hung over 2023 horror cinema, with movies like Poor Things, Birth/Rebirth, and The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster channeling the classic tale for their narratives. The campy title of the latter undercuts expectations for what is a serious, emotionally captivating film that’s artfully directed by first timer Bomani J. Story with a superb lead performance from Laya DeLeon Hayes as a brilliant teenager who uses her scientific know-how to resurrect her brother after he’s killed by local drug dealers. Dramatic with a powerhouse climax, the movie’s interpretation of the Frankenstein mythos takes on a new dimension when viewed through the prism of modern urban life, where death is all too prevalent.
This quirky Halloween-set film delivers some of the most potent scares of the year alongside dark humor derived from the sort of bat-shit suburban villainy that propelled The People Under the Stairs. Like that Wes Craven classic, Cobweb finds a Black hero—in this case, an elementary school teacher (Cleopatra Coleman)—investigating a house of horrors to rescue an imperiled white child. Cobweb’s story goes in a more unexpected direction but matches The People Under the Stairs‘ fable-like feel and sense of freewheeling fun, earning a spot in your annual Halloween horror marathon. (Fun fact: Debra Wilson of Mad TV fame voices the creature in the film, meaning that both the hero and villain are portrayed by Black actresses.)
A semi-sequel to the excellent missing-person thriller Searching, Missing maintains its high quality while flipping the roles, as daughter June (Storm Reid) searches for her parent, mother Grace (Nia Long). Meticulously plotted and masterfully executed with the unique storytelling element of having the events play out via screens—computers, phones, security camera monitors, etc., sort of a modern take on the epistolary novel—it delivers a fascinating mystery that never flags and doesn’t skimp on emotional heft all the way through the nerve-wracking finale.
1. Talk to Me
The indie horror hit of 2023, Talk to Me puts an intriguing twist on the possession sub-genre by portraying teens who voluntarily get possessed by ghosts as a party game, a drug to enliven their drab suburban existence. One of the teens is Mia (Sophie Wilde), a Black face you don’t expect to see in an Aussie production—although recent horror fare from Down Under like Sissy, Little Monsters, and Carnifex have featured Black leads, not to mention that Cobweb‘s Cleopatra Coleman is Australian as well—who inadvertently brings something sinister back with her from the other side. It plays out like a tragedy, a slow-motion car wreck full of tactile gruesomeness and unsettling tension as the stakes rise. Despite the increasingly grim story line, the film finds unexpected moments of levity, thanks to a smart script and dynamic performances, headlined by Wilde and Miranda Otto. It all adds up to one of the most immersive, intense viewing experiences of the year and the Black horror film that left the biggest footprint in 2023.