For a long time auteur theory appeared to refer to the directorial authorship of a film. The auteur directors like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Kurosawa are still heralded, but as studios have taken back their claim of control over the industry, and directorial stamps become rarer in these cinematic universe days, there’s a growing sense that the authorship of a film belongs to a studio. Not for nothing but at least once a week a director of some import is heard decrying “Marvel films” without acknowledging the directors behind them.

Moreover, the days of John Carpenter’s The Thing have given way to titles like Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island. The studio is now the author of the film. This might be even more true of A24, the little indie studio that has slowly made a niche for themselves as providers of “Elevated Horror”, a phrase most recently heard in the 2022 meta-sequel Scream. 

From the outside Elevated Horror appears to refer to horror films that don’t trade in cheap jump-scares or excessive gore, but in atmosphere, images and a mounting sense of unease. The cycle of horror films having moved past their torture porn days, remake obsession and, as Mark Kermode calls it, “cattle-prod cinema” of quiet moments followed by loud jump-scares, and into something more refined.

The big studios may be content to churn out legacy sequels – Jigsaw, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Candyman, Halloween, Scream – and will continue to, with the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre being less than a month away. A24, however, opts to continue giving directors the chance to create films that move at a pace that at times can be off-putting.

Thus far, A24 has boasted a lot of impressive directorial talent – Roman Coppola, Sally Potter, Harmony Korine, J. C. Chandor, Sofia Coppola, Atom Egoyan, Kevin Smith, Noah Baumbach, Alex Garland – before moving into films that have garnered awards attention – Amy, Room, Moonlight, The Florida Project, Lady Bird, and First Reformed among others. But it’s the horror film selection that is the most impressive: Green Room, The VVitch, Hereditary, It Comes at Night, A Ghost Story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Climax, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Saint Maud, False Positive and Lamb.

A24

The idea behind Elevated Horror as a sub-genre is that it doesn’t rely on the macabre or salacious moments of major studio-funded horror films. That is not to say that they don’t feature gore – often they do, but it is done in a way that upsets the viewer more than thrills them. Elevated Horror has come to mean that the films move at their own pace – Midsommar, for example, runs at a glacial two hours thirty minutes, slowly building atmosphere and dread with the occasional moment of overt, grotesque horror to keep the viewer uncertain where it’s going. 

Often the term is used to attempt to give the horror genre a legitimacy within the industry – when it comes to awards, horror films are often the least represented of all the genres. In the near one hundred years the academy has been giving out awards, the horror films nominated for Best Picture are meagrely only The Exorcist, Jaws, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan and Get Out. One could argue The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film but more often that falls into the “more legitimate” thriller category.

There was considerable outrage when Toni Collette failed to secure a nomination for her leading performance in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, portraying a woman fraying at the edges as she seeks to uncover the truth of her recently deceased mother. In fact, Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, met a similar barrage of confusion when Florence Pugh likewise failed to garner a nomination for her mesmerising turn as Dani. 

It’s not just snobbery though, or a desire to rake in awards, but a way for genre fans to offer warning to the viewing public at large. A24’s brand of Elevated Horror is not the sort of Saturday Night jump-fest to take a date to. As A24 has grown in stature and standing, more and more people are recognising its brand of dread-building and atmosphere. What this means is that people who prefer a more mainstream horror film might need to look elsewhere. The likes of The VVitch offer very little in the way of easy scares, and a film like Saint Maud is all about the build up of confusion and suspicion.

What A24 have done for the movement of Elevated Horror is to bring surrealism back to cinema. The confusing, almost dream-like world of The Lighthouse, replete with jet-black humour – Willem Dafoe farting, Robert Pattinson going lethal on a seagull – that gives way to haunting images that defy explanation – a vision of Dafoe as a mermaid type coral man. Most recently, Icelandic folk horror Lamb has continued to baffle people, its use of almost Joanna Hogg-like domesticity mixed with the sight of a part-lamb, part-human baby.

A24

These are films that give to you what you bring to them, a question rather than an answer. What is the hereditary nature of its title? Is it the cult-like presence that appears to stalk every member of the Graham family? Or is it the idea that eventually we all come to loathe our parents for the strain they put on us? What exactly comes at night in It Comes at Night? Is there a sinister force or viral infection attempting to breach the door that shelters two families, or perhaps it’s a sense of suspicion between people thrown together without reason? 

Yet despite this more esoteric take on one of the most dependable genres in cinema, Elevated Horror is in fact incredibly popular. Money-wise, A24’s most successful film remains Hereditary, which made upward of $80 million against a budget of $10 million. Given that films generally need to earn between twice and three times their budget to start turning a profit, doing eight times that is a huge profit for a two hour exploration of generational trauma that rather horrifically beheads a child before the midway point. Despite mis-marketing, It Comes at Night earned $20 million against a budget between $2.5 – 5 million. The VVitch which offered the first leading role for Anya Taylor-Joy made $40 million against a $4 million budget, Midsommar was made on a budget of $9 million and made $48 million.

These films are not franchises, often they’re original works based on no prior material and made at a fraction of the budget the mega-films they’re going up against. This is a success based on word-of-mouth, as works like Hereditary have gained notoriety for being bone chillingly scary and disturbing, so too has A24’s name as an artist unto itself. This is not entirely new – Disney has pretty much turned itself into a monolith of set release schedules and mandates under which other studios must work, but for a young independent studio to have the reputation as a singular voice is uncommon in the present day.

What remains impressive is that even as the studio has grown, and created it’s own mini-movement of Elevated Horror it has maintained a level of quality with very few out-and-out stinkers. It speaks to the film’s trust in the directorial vision and voice to work cohesively within their growing library. As we wade through another awards season where genre films will no doubt be overlooked, it might be time to accept that A24 will haunt the “why nots” of awards shows for years to come. The true horror story is how they’ve been overlooked.

By Paul Klein

Paul Klein is a film graduate. His favourite film is The Lion King, he still holds a candle for Sarah Michelle Gellar and does a fantastic impression of Sir Patrick Stewart. Letterboxd: paulkleinyo