Ever since its bloom in the 1970s, art-horror has never been the most palatable subgenre for most cinema-goers. Taking on an already polarizing genre, it adds an extra layer of inscrutability or just flat-out “weirdness” to films that are already usually pretty weird. It’s not hard to understand why even the genre’s most commercial, revered films, like Rosemary’s Baby and Black Swan, might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
However, art-horror has been undergoing something of a renaissance over the past decade, thanks almost single-handedly to A24. Since 2012, the indie production company has produced a barrage of art-house horror films that, each year, seem to work their way more conspicuously into the public eye. The company’s most popular horror film to date was Ari Aster’s 2018 masterwork Hereditary, which grossed over $80 million at the box office – even if that’s nowhere close to Jaws level, it still far beats earlier A24 films, which sometimes struggled to break even.
Update October 3, 2023: This article has been updated following the release of Talk To Me and in honor of Halloween approaching to look at what has made A24 a major player in the horror genre.
A24 has not only compelled people to go out and see more horror movies but also to talk, theorize, and, most importantly, tweet about them. Stills from A24 horror films have become memes or cultural talking points all on their own. Take Florence Pugh’s iconic “happy” face at the end of Midsommar, which has broken the internet on several occasions. Or the Reddit threads devoted to deconstructing the meaning of films like The Lighthouse.
A24 is making us eager not only to see but to engage more actively with artistic horror. This year’s Talk to Me became a mainstream hit, becoming one of their highest-grossing films of all time. They also have the ability to get closer to mainstream audiences seeking something new and innovative in horror. They’re the pioneers of modern arthouse horror from a distributing perspective, but clearly, their business model is also calling for fresh takes in the genre.
The Aesthetics of Terror
If there’s anything that A24 is famous for, it’s their ground-breaking usage of aesthetics. Regardless of genre, any A24 film is bound to be tethered to a particular “look” that becomes an irrevocable part of the film’s story itself. Zola, which was based on a real social media feud, plays out like a Twitter thread of events, complete with notification chimes at every turn. Harmony Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers is a candy-coated portrait of debauchery and hedonism. Uncut Gems is the video game that none of us would ever want to take part in.
When it comes to art-house horror, visuals have always played a key role in storytelling. Not only can they frighten us more deeply than any conversation can, but they also help express the themes of horror that are not so easily put into words. Some art-horror films that are particularly visually stunning – and terrifying – include Don’t Look Now, Eraserhead, and Let The Right One In.
Yet A24 takes the idea of visual storytelling to a whole new level. They have redefined the standards of both beauty and terror alike. Because of this, watching an A24 film for its aesthetics alone becomes a completely worthwhile venture, even if the plot of the film might be lost on us. Some A24 horror films that stand out through their otherworldly aesthetics include Under The Skin, Climax, Lamb, and Men. Watching any of these films is a visually immersive experience that will linger with viewers for a long time after the credits roll.
What is notable is A24 style is a tricky one. These films are not all made by A24 in-house. Many of the films are made independently and picked up by A24 for distribution. It is less a style that A24 has created but one that they have cultivated through their purchase. So much so that now audiences can identify the studio’s selection of horror films from competitors.
A New Generation of Auteurs and Artists
A24 has proved a welcoming space for auteurs with singular visions and up-and-coming actors alike. This is a large part of why all their films feel so new, fresh, and captivating; the company knows how to perfectly walk the line between obscurity and the mainstream. Much of what can be so intimidating about art-house horror films is that they often provide us with very few familiar faces.
A24 has a habit of ushering in up-and-coming actors into the spotlight – not those we can necessarily name, but who we definitely recognize from somewhere. Anya Taylor-Joy, Alex Wolff, and Florence Pugh, among many others, have all found starts to successful careers in A24 horror. Even more compellingly, A24 brings us stars like Kid Cudi and Pete Davidson to slasher films – an unexpected route from the expected but also has the chance to give them a shot at legitimate film careers.
This goes for whoever works behind the camera, as well. When it comes to art-house horror, A24 has been the venue for both indie and mainstream directors to fully unleash their terrifying fantasies upon the world. As a result, we get to tirelessly debate who is truly the next master – Ari Aster or Robert Eggers. A24 provides exciting new fodder for these conversations to be happening all the time. Its new directors, actors, and creative teams provide us with names to get our blood flowing.
And now, as they introduce the world to Australian YouTube personalities Danny and Michael Philippou with their great horror film Talk to Me, it’s hard not to get excited for new filmmakers they might bring next to our attention.
Horror For the Real World
A24 knows that ghosts and monsters get a bit boring after a while. Besides their aesthetic flare, if there’s anything else we can expect from an A24 film, it’s that the subject of its horror hasn’t been done before. Even its films, which ostensibly revolve around classic horror tropes, like The Witch, A Ghost Story, and Hereditary, find ways of putting their own unique spin on the film’s premise and context so that the result is something unlike audiences will witness anywhere else.
Meanwhile, A24 isn’t afraid of being topical. Even if its films feel unnecessarily weighty at times, they are always shockingly relevant. Many A24 horror films are scathing critiques of deeply-rooted problems within society or of the outrageousness of Gen Z (and the other generations, too – like the colonial ones). This brand of criticism can take many different forms, from Midsommar, which is an altogether serious and paralyzing film, to Bodies Bodies Bodies and X, which are generally fun and more lighthearted endeavors.
Regardless of how A24’s individual films decide to approach their hefty subject matters, it’s always a promise that they will do so in a way that both catches the eye and sparks a conversation. This is the real part of what makes A24 so accessible for many – behind the stylized gore or period-piece sets, they oddly give the audience a little to relate to, even if they have to dig deeply around themselves to find whatever the film’s referring to. “Elevated horror”? It’s more like art-house horror that anyone can and should consume.
Know How To Make Money
But we shouldn’t forget the fact that A24 is also part of a business, and they need to make money. As anti-art as that sounds, it’s undeniable that they are adapting. It’s the case with X‘s prequel Pearl, a film they also distributed. With MaXXXine on the way, they have now found their own horror franchise. The case of Talk to Me is even more important.
The small film that smashed Sundance earlier this year was acquired by A24 in a famous bidding war that surprised everybody. The Australian horror film was different from its peers, but it was still a ghost story that resembled some of its peers. The film’s been a massive hit worldwide, so it didn’t take long for a sequel to be announced. In fact, similar to X and Pearl, a prequel was already shot while the first was being made. Now, A24 has two potentially big horror franchises that can also support their smaller, more auteur-driven projects.
It is also worth noting the cost of these films oftentimes does not require big box office numbers. They acquire them for cheap, and even if they don’t make all of their money back at the box office (though many of them do), they have a better life on Paid Video on Demand and selling them to streaming services. This is how horror films used to do well on home video and DVD, now done in the streaming era. The movies build up word of mouth from their theatrical release and become must-watch at home. A24 knows how to play the long game.