False Positive

Primal screams: did A24 save horror?

From Midsommar to Hereditary, A24 has been revitalising the horror genre over the past few years, with prestige projects that tap into our most basic fears. With the release of False Positive this Friday, the studio’s reign of terror over cinema shows no signs of slowing down.

It’ll be some time before we can truly assess the impact A24 – the little company that could – has had on horror filmmaking. Right now, we’re in a moment, approaching the arc of the curve. Next from the stable that brought us era defining moments like Hereditary, Midsommar, and last year’s alarming and disarming Saint Maud, is John Lee’s intriguing body horror False Positive. Within an age where little seen on screen is as horrifying as the daily news agenda, A24 has distilled the essence of our most primal fears – family, relationships, our purpose, our bodies – with style and panache. And in doing so, it might have saved the genre.

It’s easy to forget, so spoiled are we now for prestige horror, just what a creative nadir the genre found itself in only a decade ago. A look at 2010’s most significant releases confirm the genre’s dysphoria at the turn of the decade. There was a raft of unnecessary remakes, like an English language take on acclaimed Swedish vampire-love-story Let Me In and a remarkably misguided reworking of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Failed attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle with the disappointing Paranormal Activity 2. And the butt end of the torture porn aesthetic that had dominated the decade prior, by way of the grotesque A Serbian Film and Saw 3D.

It’s impossible to talk about how horror navigated its route out of these years of creative malaise without acknowledging the contributions of Blumhouse Productions. The production company was founded by Jason Blum in 2000, but it really came to prominence in 2007 with the release of Oren Peli’s found-footage classic Paranormal Activity. Made for a meagre $15,000 (£10.7k), the film grossed $193 million dollars worldwide. Paranormal Activity and the numerous other hits that followed – Insidious, Sinister, The Purge series and, most notably, the Oscar-winning Get Out – embodied the business model of the outfit: low budgets and creative freedom for filmmakers. Innovation most often occurs when the money men aren’t in the room.

Midsommar

And yet, the stable most commonly associated with horror’s revival didn’t even exist at the turn of said decade. In fact, A24 didn’t make a horror movie until April 2014’s Under The Skin (or surrealist neo noir thriller Enemy, released a month prior, depending on how ridged you are in your definition of horror, though any film that ends with a man sized tarantula on a bed must surely be in the conversation). But where Blumhouse created a new studio system for the genre, A24 shaped horrors’ new tone. There’s even a name for it, one that’s taken coverage of the New York based company into realms whereupon horror rarely treads. They call it Elevated Horror” – and you’re just as likely to read about it in Vanity Fair as you are in the timeless horror bible Fangoria.

If you’re a vintage horror fan, it’s likely this new term will irk, even annoy you. Like comic books became graphic novels and sales to people who’d never step inside a comic store followed, there’s a suspicion the Elevated” prefix is a new, not especially coordinated attempt to repackage horror as something distinct from its often sordid past. This suggests that sordid” is in some way undesired, and negates the intelligence and emotional depth present within the sort of films that have been made as long as the horror genre has existed. For Elevated”, read complex, psychological and a refraction of societal fears. That sounds an awful lot like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Jacobs Ladder (1990) or Teeth (2007) to us.

But whether you like the Elevated” moniker or not, it’s unarguable that A24 are modern horror’s most prominent taste makers, certainly in the West. Founded in August 2012 by industry veterans Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges, the very name of the company is an insight into the creative perspective at the heart of the founders vision. A24 is the Italian motorway that Katz, former head of film finance at major investors Guggenheim Partners, was driving on when he had the idea for the company. Surreptitiously, the motorway is also known as the backdrop to many of Italian cinema’s greatest surrealist pictures. A movie company that values art and expression over commerce – an area, it should be said, that isn’t A24’s strongest field; 2016’s Moonlight is one of the lowest grossing films ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture – shouldn’t be as rare as it is. We used to always talk about Oh, there’s gotta be a better way’,” Katz has said, often.

Saint Maud

Doing things differently isn’t the only secret to A24’s success. The company deploys stealth data marketing startup Operam, which develops algorithms used to target potential cinema goers via social media. It’s also a client of web-focused marketing agency Watson/​DG. But artistry remains core to their appeal. The 360 presentation of the companies’ films have become a sign of quality, or at least must-see intrigue. Within the realm of horror, beginning with Robert Eggers debut feature, 2016’s supernatural period piece The Witch, A24’s classy, redrawn logo – a custom font, with Bodoni as the source – is a hallmark. It’s a sign that horror is being taken seriously within; this is appealing, when in the genre’s recent history, it so often was not.

Unsurprisingly, there’s an A24 podcast (“No host. No ads. No rules”). More surprisingly, they publish their own fanzine, while the companies limited-edition merchandise line gives texture to a genre of movie making often accompanied by mass produced tat. Sadly, if you’re after the 6” by 3” by 4” hand-stained pinewood Bear in a cage” from 2019’s brain busting folk horror Midsommar, then you’re shit out of luck. That’s long past sold out. But a grooming set modelled on Eggers The Lighthouse? If you’re quick, you can probably grab one of those. If you miss out, you can download a free wallpaper of the macabre craft set used by Charlie in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which, at $80 million grossed on a $10 million budget, is A24’s biggest commercial hit worldwide.

Despite their big, surprising (for the cast of La La Land, anyway) win with Moonlight, A24’s luscious vision for modern horror has yet to make much impact at the Oscars, with only Jarin Blaschke’s superb cinematography in The Lighthouse receiving a cursory nod last year. This isn’t entirely surprising. Horror has long received short thrift by the Oscars, with Fredric March’s Best Actor” portrayal of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931, The Exorcist sweeping the board with ten awards in 1974, acclaim for Jaws two years later and for The Silence Of The Lambs in 1992 being choice highlights.

There are signs that the times are a changin’. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb mediation on suburban racism, won big at the 2018 Oscars. Ditto The Shape Of Water, more a monster movie than a horror film, but a cerebral one. A Quiet Place took home an award a year later and could have felt aggrieved at not bagging more. None of these films carry the A24 stamp of approval. And yet it’s hard to imagine any of them existing in a world where A24 doesn’t.

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