This is #HouseOfHorrors, where Prahlad Srihari compiles the definitive guide on the modern production houses that comprise the genre's hall of fame.
Last Updated: 10.18 AM, May 08, 2023
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This is OTTplay’s House Of Horrors, an 8-part guide to the eight contemporary production houses that have cemented their spots in the genre’s hall of fame. In part 2, we look at A24. Read part 1, on Blumhouse, here.
What is A24?
Though A24 could be mistaken for a luxury lifestyle label that sells retro-minimalist apparel, lighters, candles and dog leashes, it is not just that. Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges started A24 as a film distribution company in 2012 before organically expanding into production. Over the years, the Manhattan-based studio has managed to carve out a niche for itself with mid-budget indie fare. While the budgets aren’t big, the noise A24 tends to make with its digital marketing ploys sure are — enough to earn it a reputation as a disruptor. A reputation that continues to gain momentum by way of critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth its movies generate. Of all the different kinds of movies in the A24 catalogue, its horror output has always been central to its identity.
What is A24 known for?
Catalysing, if not kickstarting, a new mid-budget movie revolution.
In an era of spectacle-driven blockbusters and disposable streaming content, A24 has found an agreeable middle ground of mid-budget genre films targeting adults, rather than all four quadrants. The company has grown into a vital force especially in the horror sphere. Many of its horror films (The Witch, Hereditary, Midsommar, X) have struck a chord with both critics and audiences. Some of its horror-adjacent films (Under the Skin, Krisha, Climax, High Life, The Lighthouse, The Green Knight) have prompted conversations over the very definition of horror — and expanded the parameters in the process. Beyond cinema, its television footprint has been slowly growing as well with shows like Ramy, Euphoria, Irma Vep and Beef.
A24 blazed a bloody trail through Hollywood as the cool outsider-turned-trendsetter, ushering in a new wave of performative-consumerist cinephilia, convincing its staunchest liberal-arts apostles to wear 80-dollar hoodies and 35-dollar beanies emblazoned with the company’s alphanumeric logo like a badge of honour. A studio truly of and for the influencer era. If A24 films have had a cultural reach beyond their budgets, it’s because the company understands the importance of investing not only in emerging talent but in its own brand. With shrinking attention spans, it understood that visibility and recall value are all the more important to engage its audiences and convert them into loyal fanbases.
Right from the start, A24 played the social media game to near perfection. Spring Breakers was promoted with a viral picture of James Franco as thug Jesus at the Last Supper. The Witch gained a lot of fans after a Twitter account was created in the name of the satanic billy goat Black Phillip. Midsommar sure got more butts on seats after a video of a father-and-son pair fleeing a screening went viral. Once a brand identity had been built, the company got into the merchandising business. Becoming a card-carrying member of the A24 cult will provide you access to its monthly zine and limited-edition merch — but not to any of its films. What’s more American than tying experiences to purchasable mementos you can take home?
What is fascinating about A24’s global reputation is how it grows despite its notoriously US-centric limited distribution strategy. Each film’s release is promoted as “releasing everywhere” on social media when the company really means just the US. Releases outside the US are more often than not delayed by months, that is if they release at all.
What are the hallmarks of A24’s horror productions?
The greatest trick the marketing team of A24 has pulled is convincing the growing fanbase there is a house style. A recognisable vibe that suggests you are watching an “A24 film”. Never mind if the film was produced or simply distributed by A24. While profiling the company in 2015, David Ehrlich even made the case for “the distributor as auteur”. Its success story is rooted in how it has piggybacked on the reputation of noted filmmakers, promoting films it had little to no hand in making as its own. If the films share some formal or thematic similarities, it is by coincidence, not by design. Shooting in black-and-white and unconventional aspect ratios, crafting ambivalent narratives or prizing trembling dread over jump-scares don’t imply a house style. In fact, insisting so does injustice to the range of artistic voices driving the modern horror boom.
The company behind Moonlight, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Lady Bird, Uncut Gems, Zola and First Cow, has also produced and/or distributed horror films with psychological depth and aesthetic clarity. But some critics have showered praise on these films with backhanded compliments meant to undercut a genre that taps into more primal emotions. Patronising labels like “elevated horror”, “post-horror” and “prestige-horror” insinuate that horror films pre-A24 were somehow devoid of artistic merit. The insinuation works on the reductive assumption that subtlety, atmosphere and seriousness are always virtues. But horror can be subtle and heavy-handed, atmospheric and jump-scary, serious and silly.
Undeniably, the best horror films in the A24 catalogue function as sharp character studies. A young woman’s coming of age turns into a demonic experience in Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch. Supernatural forces compound the anguish of a mother in mourning in Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary. The rage of an elderly woman lamenting over lost youth turns murderous in Ti West’s X. These are the kind of films which generate reviews with template headlines like: the real monster is puberty, grief, motherhood, the cycle of abuse and trauma, aging, etc.
Some monsters are abstract; some concrete. Some ideas are reinterpreted; some subverted. Pearl, the prequel to X, siphons DNA from The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland for a slasher villain origin story. Aster’s second feature Midsommar changes the default setting of darkness in horror films to remind audiences daytime offers no refuge from horrors. Eggers’s second The Lighthouse brought the same exhaustive period research and psychological torment to a maritime nightmare involving screeching sirens, vengeful seagulls, tentacled creatures and two men plunging into madness.
Who are the directors and actors A24 has worked with?
With Under the Skin in 2013, Jonathan Glazer pretty much set up the baseline for the auteur-driven horror and horror-adjacent films A24 would go on to produce and distribute. The who’s who of modern genre filmmaking have since worked with the studio: Claire Denis (High Life) Gaspar Noé (Climax), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ti West (X, Pearl), Denis Villeneuve (Enemy), Peter Strickland (In Fabric), Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room), and Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Men).
The company has proven to be a beacon for many of the emerging twisted talents raising hell in today’s cinematic landscape. Besides Eggers and Aster, the studio also put Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night), Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter), Rose Glass (Saint Maud) and Halina Reijn (Bodies Bodies Bodies) on the map. Indeed, their films wouldn’t have been half as memorable if not for the performances of actors like Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse). The Witch made Anya-Taylor-Joy a star, leveraging her wide-set eyes, sharp bone structure and otherworldly complexion for its puritan nightmare. X and Pearl gave us a whole new kind of scream queen/slasher icon in Mia Goth.
Which are A24’s defining horror movies?
In order of release: The Witch (2015), It Comes at Night (2017), Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), The Lighthouse (2019), X (2022), Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022), Pearl (2022)
Overall, Everything Everywhere All at Once has been A24’s biggest hit (with a worldwide gross of $139.1 million) and its biggest hardware earner (with seven wins out of 11 Oscar nominations) — its second Best Picture winner after Moonlight. Among the horror films, Hereditary ($82.5 million) and Midsommar ($48 million) have brought the best returns. As we know, hardware for horror films have been hard to come by throughout film history.
Which are A24’s (actual) best horror movies?
In order of personal preference: Under the Skin (2013), The Witch (2015), In Fabric (2018), Climax (2018), Midsommar (2019), High Life (2018), Green Room (2015), The Lighthouse (2019), Hereditary (2018), Pearl (2022), Saint Maud (2020), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), X (2022)