★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
It was worth the wait. Antlers is a somber and intense showcase of Northwest folklore horror, with layers of well-told subtexts of domestic abuse survivors, the plight of small-town opioid abuse, and the graphic power of the Native American cryptid legend of the Wendigo. Mix in great acting and some great creature and body-horror effects and you get an all-around winner this fall.
Directed by Scott Cooper
One of the most highly anticipated horror films of 2020 got pushed to 2021, like many films trying to get a theatrical release. So, it arrived a year late, but to the patient go the rewards. Antlers is a top-notch story of the unloved, the forgotten, the bullied, and the abused with an overlay of body horror on top.
It takes a survivor to empathize with a fellow survivor. Young Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) is now having to care for his father and brother who have been locked in the attic of their home because his junkie and meth-making father got attacked and infected by something. Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) and his partner were attacked in the opening scene of the movie by an unseen animalistic force and now is a feral man, degenerating and mutating into something horrific. Trapped up with him is Lucas’ little brother Aiden, a sweet boy, but also showing signs of a foul presence.
Keri Russell is Julia Meadows, Lucas’ teacher, recently returning back to their small backwoods Oregon town. She and her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons) the town’s sheriff, are living together in the home they grew up in. They are both survivors of child abuse at the hands of their father, and Julia immediately picks up signs that Lucas is having difficulties at home. His homework assignments are graphic and grim, illustrating the horrible transformations happening in his house. What’s more, he is getting bullied at school. And his hollow-eyed distant personality is a big red flag, instantly recognized by Julia.
The overriding background that Lucas’s mom died a while ago, and that Frank Weaver is a well-known junkie and agitator all compounds the logic of the story. This has been allowed to happen because nobody in town, including Paul, wanted to intervene. The fact that nobody knows the whereabouts of Aiden, who does not attend school is also chalked up to the rural libertarian streak of parents not wanting to send their kids to public schools, and doubly so if the parents were in the opioid trades.
Eventually, the mangled and dispersed corpse of Frank’s partner is discovered. As the school officials, the cops, and the bullies all close in on Lucas and his home, Frank begins to transform into something beastly and mythic… a Wendigo, which does not bode well for any of those looking for Lucas. The Wendigo is a folkloric native evil spirit with an insatiable hunger. It is a hybrid of an elk or a deer and a man, but this is no timid creature, and it sure isn’t doe-like adorable.
I found that this story was like a Swiss watch, all the components working neatly together to spin a great tale. You get a creepy kid, but you totally get why he’s so messed up. Julie is also messed up, and you know why she would latch on to a messed-up kid like Lucas. Even the people who end up becoming victims in this plot act rationally, with justifiable caution, but are also compelled to act given their motivations.
The gloomy and damp environment casts a pall over the proceedings and sets the tone. This is a serious piece of work, almost entirely bereft of comic relief, which is itself a relief, as I don’t think this is a film that would have benefitted from the occasional zinger. Though it is not an action-packed bloodbath of a film, every scene had importance. Curse the large diet Coke I was drinking, as I had to find a moment to step out to the restroom, and I didn’t want to miss a scene. As it turns out, I did miss a crucial moment, which bummed me out. For those of you who watch this at home, you’ll want to pause the film, as this Swiss watch demands your attention at all times.
Full credit to Scott Cooper for setting the hook, and keeping even the little details important in every scene. Transitions in both the cinematography and script were smooth and seamless. Every scene had a purpose, and the timing of the exposition dumps was handled well. You got it when you needed it and not too soon or too late. The story was based on the short story of the same name by Nick Atosca, and he is given screenwriting credit here.
Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons are great together, and individually they gave compelling performances. Young Jeremy T. Thomas and Sawyer Jones were both strong in their roles, essential for a film like this to succeed. Thomas is actually a veteran of the TV screen, but this is his first feature film, and he succeeds at being both creepy and empathetic. Jones is sweet in his tragic role as the little brother. Here’s hoping that starring in an intense horror movie like this does not mess them up.
I would have liked to have seen a bigger role for stalwart actor Graham Greene, who plays the ex-sheriff, but he pretty much serves the sole purpose of lending the narrative authenticity of the Native American legend of the Wendigo. He’s essentially an exposition dump character, and he could have been used for so much more, he is a very talented actor and his limited screen time seemed like a bit of a waste. Amy Madigan does a fine job in her small role as the school principal, and one who actually takes Julia’s concerns seriously and acts responsibly… at her own peril.
This could very well have been in Appalachia or Upstate New York. The Wendigo is actually an Algonquin legend, which is an East-coast tribal nation. They got the nuances right though. The insatiable greed and cannibalistic hunger. This version, in particular, also has some lycanthropic overtones as well. The town is fictional, and for native Oregonians, like me, it is fairly obvious that this is British Colombia as the shooting location.
The wendigo creature, it should be noted, is terrific. This is a very hard cryptid to execute well. It has been tried before in Wendigo, and Black Mountain Side, both to pretty laughable bad-taxidermy results, in what otherwise would be solid movies. It’s just hard to make a deer-creature scary and not silly. There is a moment, where the wendigo casts off the literal face mask of Frank that is one of those “Did I just see what I just saw?” events. Really icky and really effective. When the Wendigo goes violent it is fearsome and they don’t need to use jump scares to get your blood going.
The main selling point here is the subtext messaging. The fact that this is a forgotten mining town, with a kid falling between the tracks, and a savior teacher who is battling her own demons with alcohol and PTSD trauma herself is a potent combination. She is not only saving the boy, but she is saving herself. Using Paul as a foil is also great, and there is an important moment where Paul reminds her that he too was a victim, but he has managed to overcome his past issues, though his behavior has proven that he is a cautious “don’t rock the boat” personality that may have proven helpful in surviving the worst of the abuse.
Also, the plight of Frank, and his descent into a body-horror hell as the result of falling prey to opioid addiction, and the sins of making that which destroyed him is a topical trope. Though he becomes monstrous, he tries his best to protect the boys he loves, but the transformation overcomes him, and he is lost to its evils. A direct correlation can be easily drawn here, but it avoids being preachy and too on the nose. Great editing and allusions without anybody having to point a finger at this and announcing it to the audience. Well done.
Antlers made a strong tie to storytelling. That this is folklore passed down in an oral tradition, and one of the great little scenes of Lucas telling his story, of three bears is NOT the three bears that you know of. It’s a message of his own situation and illustrated with some dark and frenetic illustrations. All is not right in Lucas’s world. We just did a podcast on Folklore horror, and this would fit squarely in that category, and it explicitly roots itself to the power of folk tales.
Antlers executes most of the fundamental horror things just right. First and foremost, it is genuinely creepy and full of dread. It has sympathetic but not stereotyped protagonists. A good scary monster, and a great transformation scene. When it needs to it provides good gore effects. An intense and layered story that has multiple deeper messages. More like this, please!
Antlers is currently in wide release around the country, but is not getting the multi-cinema treatment, so catch it in the theater while you can! It is rated R for gory violence, language, and the effects of methamphetamines.