Defining “A24 Horror”

By now, I hope everyone’s learned to call bullshit whenever they hear the term “elevated horror.” Audiences who checked out from the genre back in the dismal days of the torture-happy, nu-metal scored 2000s might have to do mental gymnastics to justify enjoying high-profile entries into a canon they’ve deliberately chosen to ignore in the years since, but anyone who’s been paying attention in the last decade knows that the days of the genre being defined by Saw & Hostel sequels are long behind us (well, mostly). Horror has been enjoying a huge creative upswing in recent years, offering young & hungry directors room to experiment in a creative medium that has a built-in commercial potential, an increasing rarity outside the $100+ mil blockbuster landscape. Some lingering genre-bias held over from past eras of torture porn & slasher sequel exhaustion makes “horror” a dirty word in some critical circles, however, which has been inspiring some people to justify removing the descriptor from titles they believe to be a cut above the norm. This goes beyond labeling any horror film with an attention to atmosphere & craft as “elevated” too. There was an attempt to reframe Get Out as a “social thriller,” an entirely new genre descriptor that willfully ignores that film’s continuation (and subversion) of classic works like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the better half of Wes Craven’s catalog. While promoting his recent film A Quiet Place, actor-director John Krasinsky talked down the genre as much as he could, saying he sought to make “a good movie,” not a horror movie, as if those terms were mutually exclusive (not to mention that his film is about as genre-faithful as they come). As these examples pile up (see also: The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Raw, etc.) terms like “elevated horror” have become so widely applied to so many disparate films that they’re entirely useless as descriptors. They’re basically just frustrated admissions that there are horror movies with artistic merit, which, duh.

Something that’s much easier to define is the term “A24 horror,” which has a very specific connotation, but still embodies what people typically mean when they say “elevated horror.” The production/distribution company A24 has consistently attached themselves to some of the film industry’s most exciting creative projects in the last few years, including some of my all-time favorite works in any genre: 20th Century Women, The Florida Project, Good Time, Moonlight, Spring Breakers, etc. Their taste for well-crafted, thematically daring cinema extends to the horror films they distribute as well, works that often fall under the supposed “elevated horror” umbrella. Let’s just assume that when someone says “elevated,” what they mean is “artsy-fartsy”: movies that value atmospheric dread & experiments in craft over traditional horror genre payoffs like masked killers & jump scares. What’s helpful about using “A24 horror” as a lens to discuss this artsy-fartsy horror style is that it narrows down the pile of titles worth discussion. A24 is a small company that only puts out so many titles a year in any genre, but their selection is so specific & consistent that it does have its own distinct, identifiable vibe. So, what are the films of the “A24 horror” canon? The films Tusk & Green Room are a little too traditionalist to qualify, as they deal more in familiar genre payoffs than the atmospheric dread that typically guides A24’s artsy-fartsy style. A Ghost Story, Swiss Army Man, and Life After Beth are all morbid genre deviations that could be described as horror-adjacent, but don’t quite comfortably fit in the genre’s parameters. Similarly, the films Krisha, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Enemy all nail the atmospheric dread aspect of the “A24 horror” subgenre, but use that effect outside the confines of strict horror classification, potentially excluding them from the conversation. When we discuss “A24 horror” as a descriptor, then, we’re only really discussing four titles: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary. Those four titles also happen to be among the best horror films in recent memory.

As a pair, The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter feel like the baseline definition of what “A24 horror” looks & feels like. Both films deal directly in demonic, occultist genre tropes with a very long-established tradition within horror cinema lore, dating at least as far back as Häxan. They also both rely much heavier on dread & tone than the more immediate, tangible payoffs of more commercially-minded horror films like A Quiet Place & IT. What distinguishes them from one another is how A24 chose to distribute them. The Blackcoat’s Daughter had a years-long, troubled road from when it was a film festival darling titled February to its short-lived theatrical run & eventual fade into streaming platform oblivion (which is a shame, because its sound design & visual mood really deserve to be experienced as big & loud as possible). It’s sad to say so, but that’s a fairly standard, appropriate release model for a modern artsy-fartsy picture with limited appeal. Selling The Blackcoat’s Daughter as a wide-release genre picture, as if it were a Blumhouse-produced Purge or Insidious sequel, would have been a little disingenuous, essentially tricking fans of traditional jump scares, monsters, and gore into watching a quietly disturbing art film. That’s exactly what A24 did with The Witch. It may have been Swampflix’s Top Film of 2016, but wide-release horror audiences (generally) hated that film’s artsy-fartsy guts. The exact limited imagination of what horror can be that inspire the genre’s detractors who whip out defensive, apologetic terms like “elevated horror” & “social thriller” also turned supposed horror enthusiasts against The Witch for not delivering the exact genre thrills they expect from wide-release entries in the genre. A24 also sold The Witch as a terrifying spookfest with wide appeal, something I personally appreciated for being able to see it large & loud (with a vocally unappreciative crowd), but left a lot of first-weekend horror audiences feeling ripped-off. It was in that wide divide between artsy-fartsy cinema nerds who appreciated that film’s effective sense of atmospheric dread and pissed-off horror traditionalists who found the film to be a total bore that the “A24 horror” genre was born that very weekend.

If The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter established the “A24 horror” baseline, then the more recent works It Comes at Night & Hereditary have served to test its boundaries. Personally, It Comes at Night is my favorite film of the pair, if not only for its stubborn doubling-down on The Witch’s least commercially appealing impulses. It Comes at Night is a film about dread. More specifically, it’s about a very particular kind of grief & dread that only hits you late at night when you’re unable to fall asleep to relieve the pain of your own oppressive, obsessive thoughts. That’s a daringly abstract villain for a monster movie, which left many audiences pissed, since they were expecting the “it” from the film’s title to be a physically-manifested monster (which is essentially what A Quiet Place turned out to be a year later). Hereditary plays with the opposite end of the “A24 horror” spectrum, lightening up on the atmospheric dread to delve further into its family-in-crisis drama through a tangible, horrifically violent threat, even if a supernatural one. Guess what? Wide audiences still despised it, saddling the film with a D+ CinemaScore for not being “scary” in a traditional, easily identifiable way. A large portion of that reaction is due directly to A24’s marketing, which repeated the often employed claim that Hereditary is “the scariest horror event since The Exorcist” (a tactic last used by Paramount to promote mother!, hilariously). Hereditary is a long, weird journey into bizarrely-expressed themes of grief & familial resentment, which could also be said about It Comes at Night. The difference is that Hereditary is much more accommodating to a wider audience, especially in a go-for-broke third act that delivers the exact genre film thrills traditional horror enthusiasts supposedly want to see, achieved through relentlessly nightmarish imagery. They (mostly) hated it anyway, which is just as much an intrinsic part of “A24 horror” as atmospheric dread at this point.

In just four films, “A24 horror” has become such a distinctly identifiable tone that you can see it echoed in other genre titles A24 never had a hand in releasing: The Neon Demon, Goodnight Mommy, Tale of Tales, etc. Calling these works “elevated horror” is an insult to just as worthy genre entries that don’t focus entirely on atmospheric dread & metaphorical subtext, as it frames them as “lowly” by comparison. The term “A24 horror” is much more useful, as there’s a specificity to its implications. Although A24 distributed the Kevin Smith horror “comedy” Tusk, that’s far from the first title that comes to mind when you hear the term “A24 horror”, maybe even behind other titles the company never touched. “A24 horror” is distinct, succinct, and doesn’t insult other, more crowd-easing genre entries in the process. I’d even prefer use of the term “artsy-fartsy” over “elevated,” since it’s at least honest. There’s nothing inherently worthier about a horror film just because it focuses on craft & atmosphere over delivering the goods. In fact, since we appreciators of the “A24 horror” subgenre appear to be in the minority and most audiences are displeased with what that approach offers, it’s arguable that this end of the genre spectrum is the lower, less-respectable medium.

-Brandon Ledet

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3 thoughts on “Defining “A24 Horror”

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