Directed by Scott Cooper
The generous release schedule of low to medium budget horrors continues, with this long-awaited flick from Searchlight Pictures (now owned by Disney, thus this comes to you via the house of mouse). Director Scott Cooper has straddled several genres in his first four films, including gangsters, gunslingers and country crooners. Now, after being recommended by none other than the king of creature design Guillermo del Toro, he’s turned to horror with his latest outing Antlers, which is based on a short story by co-writer Nick Antosca (who was also the showrunner for the underrated anthology series Channel Zero). It’s a characteristically dark little ditty that combines his appreciation of character drama with a fresh take on the campfire classic: The Wendigo.
We’re in a little rural town in Oregon: the kind of place you’d half expect Mulder and Scully or Dale Cooper to roll up to. Middle-school teacher Julia (Russell), who struggles with alcoholism, has moved back and is living with her sheriff brother Paul (Plemons). Unfortunately, their relationship is a little cold, with both still processing their mistreatment at the hands of a relative during childhood. It’s because of this that Julia latches on to one of her pupils, Lucas (Thomas), whose eerie drawings and general demeanour imply troubles at home. If she only knew the half of it: his drug-cooking dad and innocent little brother both seem to be undergoing a transformation: a change that means they need to eat flesh and be locked away in the attic. Sensing he may be a fellow victim of abuse, she reaches out to him to little avail. Still, not to be discouraged, she sets out to help him and unwittingly becomes part of a chain of events that unleashes both literal and symbolic demons.
Like many other movie monsters, the Wendigo in Antlers acts as an allegory. Primarily, it stands for the cycle of abuse and how its impact can linger long after the threat is gone. So we have Julia’s thankfully vague trauma coupled with her subsequent guilt for leaving and her problems with addiction. Then there’s Paul’s quiet pain, along with his unresolved feelings about her getting away when he didn’t (as usual, Plemons turns understated emotional closedness into an art form). Their experiences parallel both the ordeal Lucas is going through and the corrupting influence of drugs on their community. On top of this, the film’s awkwardly sole Native American voice goes with the traditional fable of the Wendigo standing for the destruction of the natural world. If you think this sounds a bit of a horror hodgepodge, then you’d be right: there’s a hell of a lot of subtexts. Hence, at times, Antlers watches like the writers are throwing metaphors against the wall to see what sticks: a film about everything can also be a film about nothing. On the one hand, the lack of precision means it may seem shapeless – which is a fair criticism. On the other, however, it means the threat of violence always carries a personal significance. So when we reach the more literal closing sections, each character is gifted with a degree of closure to their story. Besides, as the tropey thematically relevant class tells us, myths can mean different things to different people.
As per other slow-burn horrors, much of the success of Antlers comes down to its mood. Cooper is yet to make a film you’d call enjoyable, and this one is no exception. It’s at times emotionally draining, and an all-around miserable ninety minutes that’ll have you seldom reaching for the popcorn. Yet, given the themes it deals with, I think this is appropriate: these are damaged characters who are more afraid of breaking down their walls than anything that roars in the night. We don’t have the everything’s going to be ok, or growing through adversary, message that many movies about the same thing have – I’m thinking of you, Gerald’s Game. Instead, Antlers is less about moving on and more about surviving. On that point, there aren’t a whole lot of kills, or big set-pieces, though crucially, it made me feel like everything could kick off anytime, and we’re just a couple of bad decisions away from the bloodbath. The mist-covered mountains around the small town make for a dynamic location for a story that puts humanity against the natural world. They also remind us how isolated, and therefore vulnerable, everyone is physically (not to mention emotionally).
The Wendigo itself is kept in the shadows for much of the running time, meaning punters looking for the latest creature feature may be disappointed: it’s more about gradual dread than schlock and shock. Yeah, we hear many eerie noises coming from Lucas’ family house, which has had better days, and some neat money shots are smattered throughout. However, it’s not until the third act when we see what this thing can do. For me, this wasn’t a problem: the sounds and sketches meant my imagination conjured up something terrible below the surface. The austere approach grants Cooper and his, excellent, cast ample time to explore the complex relationships (more rewarding than any of the mayhem are the muted scenes between Julia and Paul). It also gives the monster maximum impact when we eventually see it. Combined with the icky design, which likely has del Toro’s hand, the build-up bestows the wendigo with a nasty, visceral presence that feels earned. And as we reach Antlers’ climax, Cooper rewards viewers’ patience and emotional investment with some of the most vicious but most compulsively watchable body-horror scenes of the year. Admittedly, it may be too little too late for many viewers, akin to watching a full gig by a one-hit-wonder to hear the track they went for at the end. But for those who want to watch something they can immerse themselves in, I think it’ll be worth it. Antlers may move you more than it’ll scare you. Still, it’s a sullen, smart and skillfully made horror.
Antlers is at the cinema from the 29th of October 2021.