Arthouse Horror and the Rise of a New Genre


Another A24 horror film continues to redefine the genre for film fans and filmmakers alike. Let’s take a look.

At its US premiere screening at Fantastic Fest 2021, Lamb continued a new, yet already long, trend of thrilling audiences with classic horror genre motifs juxtaposed within an arthouse feature film style. And, while this one might not be as inherently terrifying as previous A24 horror films—like The Witch or Hereditary—it certainly has cemented this new style of arthouse horror as a genre unto itself.

If you’ve seen the poster for Lamb (or watched the trailer), you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that this isn’t a typical arthouse film . . . yet it’s also not a typical horror film either.

But, what are these new arthouse horror films? Are they a new flash-in-the-pan trend, or has A24 seemingly unlocked a new sub-genre filmmakers should strive to emulate?

Let’s explore Lamb and the rise of arthouse horror.

The History of the Horror Genre

Children of the Corn
It’s important to first study the horror genre by watching classics like Children of the Corn. Image via New World Pictures.

As we’ve discussed here on The Beat, the horror genre is one of the richest and most exciting genres within film and cinema history. With roots traceable back to some of the earliest moving pictures at the turn of the 20th century, the horror genre has ebbed and flowed in popularity as a reflection of what audiences were interested in.

The horror genre has developed many sub-genres itself, which have come and gone in popularity, as well. It’s safe to say that many of your favorite “horror” movies fall nicely into many of these sub-genres, including:

  • Slasher horror
  • Zombie horror
  • Folk horror
  • Body horror
  • Found footage horror
  • Etc. . . .

However, in recent years, there have certainly been rumblings of a new style of horror that feels different, and perhaps difficult to classify.

Horror Goes Arthouse with “Elevated Horror”

Get Out
If you haven’t seen Get Out, you should. Image via Universal Pictures.

With examples like the aforementioned The Witch and Hereditary, as well as non-A24 films like Get Out, Us, Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and Mother!, these new arthouse-style horror films have been dubbed “elevated horror” by film critics and bloggers online.

And, while you could make the case that many of these films fall into a few of the familiar sub-genres of horror (like folk, for example, for films like Lamb or The Witch), they certainly feel like a different breed than previous sub-genre films.

However, as author Laura Bradley argues in her piece on how “This Was the Decade Horror Got ‘Elevated’,” “horror has long been one of cinema’s most effective and interesting lenses through which to examine the things that scare us most, both as individuals and as societies,” and that this might have simply become “the decade when mainstream audiences finally started to notice.” 

What is Lamb?

With this debate in mind, the new A24 film Lamb, written and directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and starring Noomi Rapace, is an interesting case study into this budding new horror sub-genre. While not as deeply frightening as some of these other elevated horror films, Lamb seems to hit many of the new tropes by casting its elevated arthouse lens on the story of a young couple battling with parenthood, loss, and marital issues.

Set against the backdrop of a rural Icelandic farm, the quiet life of the couple in question is interrupted with the discovery of a lamb-child creature, which the couple subsequently take in to raise as their own.

Without giving too much away, the film is indeed a weird blend of horror-esque scenes, without the traditional jump scares or plot twists you might expect for a standard genre horror film.

Instead, it comes from more of an arthouse space of thematic exploration, more akin to a Béla Tarr film (who was a producer and mentor to Jóhannsson).

How Should Filmmakers Respond?

Cabin in the Woods
Slasher-y and fun, Cabin in the Woods is the perfect mix of both. Again, if you haven’t seen it, you should. Image via Lionsgate.

So, the big question still remains: How should filmmakers respond to this new style and trend within the horror genre? It should come to no surprise that horror films are often one of the first genre styles many filmmakers choose to work in or emulate.

I get it, it’s both an appealing and practical decision to round up a group of friends and go shoot a horror short or feature film in the woods over the weekend. The genre doesn’t require much in terms of production costs, especially when you consider the plethora of DIY options out there for props, costumes, and visual effects.

But, traditionally speaking, many of these DIY horror projects often lean towards more slasher or comical styles. Not exactly what you’d call elevated horror. Rather, more in the vein of these recent A24 features.

However, I think this is where the opportunity for filmmakers to stand out by embracing a sudden new trend exists.

Make Your Own Arthouse Elevated Horror Films

If you’re someone starting out early enough in your career, instead of trying to make a DIY horror project full of scares and laughs, why not consider aiming for something a little deeper. Lamb is the perfect example of a film that requires little in terms of characters and settings (we never see more than a handful of actors on screen at once, for example).

And, while Lamb does make use of some visual effects (which, without giving too much away, clearly requires some CGI elements), the majority of these elevated horror-type projects lean heavy on creating suspense, tension, and indeed horror based on what’s off screen and unseen.

In summation, as we get back to our A24 vs. Marvel debate in terms of filmmaking career paths, elevated horror films like Lamb provide inspiration for any filmmaker looking to make hybrid arthouse horror films of their own, with minimal budgets and plenty of imagination.

To help you on your journey, here are some horror-specific filmmaking articles and resources:

Cover image via A24.


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