Antlers (2021) Isn’t Sharp but Still Delivers Solid Folkloric Horror
First Non-Festival Release: October 28, 2021 (Theatrical Release)
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, Scott Cooper
Runtime: 99 Minutes
Starring: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
A middle-school teacher (Keri Russell) returns to her small Oregon mining town after a twenty-year absence following the death of her abusive father. She and her brother (Jesse Plemons) find themselves recognizing patterns of abuse with one of her students: Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). Lucas lives a tough life. His mother is dead, his father is embattled with the law, and he must look after his younger brother. Everything gets worse when his father returns home from work with his younger brother and exhibiting signs of a mysterious illness. Soon, Lucas and the townsfolk will learn of the terrifying legends surrounding this disturbing sequence of events.
Antlers stumbles in storytelling but still manages to deliver an effective creature feature worth watching.
After almost two years of waiting Antlers has finally been released with mixed but mostly positive results. At the center of the narrative of Antlers is the Indigenous legend of the wendigo: a malevolent spirit that possesses humans and pushes them to commit terrible acts upon other humans including cannibalism and murder. While the story itself is ripe for a compelling story, Antlers does not treat the Indigenous story with as much care as it should. It goes even so far as introducing a character, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene) for the sole purpose of explaining the legend and offering background knowledge to aid the heroes. Effectively, Antlers fails to subvert this most reviled trope that has been dying out of popularity and utility in the modern age.
Still, the narrative of Antlers makes for a dark and atmospherically rich feature when combined with the polished art direction. The audience is slowly fed the legend of the wendigo without the film feeling too expository. The hopelessness of the dying mining town and its struggles is amplified by the setting and shots. Everything is cast in this dreary grey and green color pallet. We watch the crew traverse across rough patches of forest on foot or by car through windy, lonely mountain roads with nary another person for miles. It’s isolating and uncomfortable, especially when put up against the darker themes of trauma and abuse.
The legend of the wendigo serves as an extended metaphor for how trauma, specifically abuse and addiction, can wreak havoc in individuals and communities. It’s a great idea and one that I am on board with, but Antlers muddles it with a few narrative choices, particularly in the third act, that make it a tough sell. The biggest issue, however, comes with the star of the story. Lucas doesn’t get much development despite being at the center of the horror. Julie, however, takes the center of attention to prove that she can break cycles of abuse (one that technically hasn’t started for Lucas in the ways we would expect). I argue that it would be more effective for Lucas’s story to take priority to Julie’s as he is the one currently experiencing both the trauma of losing loved ones and is within the wendigo’s vicinity. It also makes the assertion that cycles cannot be broken, and that people are beyond saving. It feels a bit nihilistic, but my interpretation could be off.
Antlers doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t necessarily need to do more. It sets out to be an effective and technically proficient creature feature. The acting is strong amongst the entire cast. Jeremy T. Thomas is put through the ringer and deserves credit for playing the frazzled yet tough 12-year-old making impossible choices, which works well to serve the larger allegory. Well-designed creature effects make the wendigo an unsettling sight that eeks out just enough screen time to be horrific and entertaining. An amalgamation of protruding antlers and burning hearts make it one of the more unique designs in recent history and the film takes an unexpected but welcome approach to body horror with it. A constant state of dread and hopelessness with plenty of tension and scares, this mid budget slow burn is a solid movie and one that I wish more people saw during opening weekend.
In the end, Antlers suffered from the unsustainable multi-year hype marking its pre-COVID release date. While this not only affected the box office, it also truthfully makes it a harder film to judge accurately. It’s visually appealing, giving some of the year’s best creature effects, and a nice change of pace from the other mid budget genre releases we have seen thus far. Unfortunately, its story falls into similar trappings of other films built on Indigenous legends and fails to fully integrate its allegorical trimmings in a satisfying manner. Overall, I enjoyed it and feel it is a captivating film. While it is cursed to a slow box office death, Antlers will not curse your watchlist if you decide to seek it out.
Overall Score? 7/10