Adapted by Nick Antosca’s short horror fable The Quiet Boy, Antlers delivers the rich atmosphere and creepy thrills of a more retro creature feature from the 80s, but it suffers from some underwritten subtext and slim allegory, but is anchored by another vulnerable performance from Keri Russell with some impressive artistry. Set in rural Oregon, amid a few centuries later in the aftermath of the Oregon Trail and frontier conquest, this tale of domestic abuse, trauma, possession, transformation, and survival aims to provide commentary on the making of Oregon as an element of conquest in American history in which pioneers and settlers conquered the land from indigenous people. The film also brings commentary on the current state of America merged with mythology of ancient indigenous spiritual beliefs and how these past sins still carry on in our milieu today. Unfortunately, helmer Scott Cooper’s first foray into horror is severely flawed but it’s very well crafted and effectively creepy. Distributed by Fox Searchlight who pushed the release back for years faces an uphill battle in making this a commercial hit in a very crowded fall movie season. It will inevitably be a horror film that will be celebrated by the horror crowd as time goes on. With Guillermo Del Toro’s name attached as Producer, there is no doubt this film will attract an even wider audience in years to come due to his pop art and crossover appeal between fanboy and art-house devotees.
Often focused on helming more dramas and one western, Cooper is an adequate director who has established himself as an actors director who enjoys crafting genre films that reflect on American history in thoughtful ways. With the evidence of five films under his belt, with such deeply flawed but skillfully made films as Crazy Heart (that guided Jeff Bridges his first Oscar win) Out of the Furnace, Black Mass, Hostiles, and now Antlers, he’s clearly adept and comfortable with the horror genre, and Antlers is perhaps his most polished and effective film yet. While not a great filmmaker, Cooper is an adequate and confident one that shows a lot of potential in possibly directing something even grandeur in the years to come. Switching gears from dramas to horror is always a difficult challenge for filmmakers, with William Fiendkin’s The Exorcist (1974), Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980) probably faring the very best.
Cooper once again interspersed his dramatic storytelling sensibilities about troubled souls in small town America finding their suffering facing even greater menace once they find themselves battling a mythical, flesh-eating creature. You can also feel Producer Guillermo del Toro’s spirit alive in this as the use of practical effects and special effects are once again impressively delivered. Set in a small town in Oregon, where livelihoods are downtrodden by economic and environmental uncertainties, we are introduced to Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), a single father and meth dealer who creates his product out of an old abandoned mine factory. We eventually discover that Frank has a 12-year-old -son named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who is a very timid young man who gets bullied at school by his classmates. Lucas ends up finding his little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) locked in the attic of their home by Frank, who ends up getting attacked from a wendigo monster–a malignant spirit that possesses their mind, body, and soul as it transforms them into a horned creature that kills humans for the flesh and blood.
Lucas ends up going to school and turning in storytelling assignments about a starving family that clearly reflects his own, while eat the same time he begins to illustrate some deeply disturbing images in his notebook that catches the eye of Julia (Keri), Lucas’ elementary school grade teacher who believes the boy is suffering some abuse from home. Julia also holds some of her own personal trauma, who just recently moved back to Oregon after years of being gone. Julia now lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) who also works as a deputy for the town’s sheriff’s department. They reside in the same house that they lived at as kids and Lucas’ trauma begins to echo the trauma they endured as children. Once Julia reveals to Paul who her student is, we learn that Paul has wanted to arrest Frank for years–but never could do it because he didn’t want to see him abandon Aiden and Lucas which will just be sent off to a foster care center or be trapped in even worse environments.
While all the main characters are complex and emotionally drawn, each holds a deeply vulnerable side; Julia uses her attention and concern for Lucas as a coping mechanism so he doesn’t turn out the way her brother Paul has. While holding only a few scenes, the supporting roles hold some satisfying scenes from Amy Maigan as a school principal who encounters the creature in the attic when she goes to check up on Lucas and Aiden, and Graham Greene plays Winter Strokes, a former sheriff who warn Julia and Warn on the origins and purpose of the Wendigo, which signifies retribution for the injustices the local Natives endured throughout history.
There’s a huge contrast between the texture of outdoor scenes, which bounces between an outdoor woods horror film that echoes something like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Robert Eggers The Witch, which holds some stark indoor décor as well with some richly moody scenes of a creepy attic that echoes The Changeling and most recently The Invisible Man remake. Like each of those films, Antlers explores consequences of our past actions, how we can’t outlive our past sins for too long that is propelled by the passage of time where atonement or reparations eventually is found. The film explores how humanity is always endlessly mistreating the earth, ourselves, and our own bodies that will inevitably result in spiritual ramifications.
Though not as distinguished in subtext as it should have been, while the film explores timely issues that build up the havoc of the wendigo, sadly Cooper and fellow co-writers C. Henry Chiasson and Nick Antoca don’t dive hard enough into its themes as a lot of stuff feels underwritten and scattered around. Also, the creative team sadly make little room for indigenous characters other than Graham Greene who has a brief, but very stand out scene. An even greater and more effective film wouldn’t mistake the lack of catharsis as ambiguity as Cooper never fully examines how indigenous characters are impacted and shaped by the current milieu. In all fairness, Cooper deserves praise for attempting to explore these ideas as he incorporates some sophistication with the thrills. Up until the riveting and nail-biting climax, Cooper proves he has what it takes to be a craftsman of horror. While some of the ideas feel half-baked on ham-fisted, the horror and use of the creature is where it delivers the most satisfaction. Sadly, the subtext and horror never quite reaches the satisfying dichotomy that it hints at.