Antlers, a monster movie with brains and brawn from director Scott Cooper, sees Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) return to her hometown to take up a teaching position. It hasn’t been an easy move, as she’s returning to a fractious relationship with her brother Paul (Jessi Plemons) and to the house in which she suffered through a childhood of traumatic abuse. Perhaps it is this personal history that causes her to take an interest when one her students, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), begins exhibiting signs that all is not well at home. Little could she know exactly how bad things at home could be. Lucas’ father has been attacked while cooking meth in an abandoned factory, and something altogether inhuman is now stalking through the town’s woodlands.
Scott Cooper has, with this intelligent creature feature, more than understood the brief. He skillfully balances the demands of a hard-hitting drama with the bloodthirsty expectations of a horror audience. On the horror side, there’s no reliance on cheap jump-scares. Instead, an effective juxtaposition of sequences of creeping dread and explosive violence keeps the audience on their toes.
In spite of the surrounding carnage, the dramatic plot elements are kept in check with some very strong, and often understated, performances. Jeremy T. Thomas’ Lucas is taciturn and haunted. Jessi Plemons provides a very grounded portrayal of a meat-and-potatoes guy struggling to come to terms with the supernatural, while also lacking the emotional tools to repair his relationship with his sister. Keri Russell’s role is the most demanding, and her transformation over the film’s runtime is the most stark. As a recovering addict with horrific injustices in her past, her character has enormous reserves of rage within her. It’s very engaging to watch her struggle to reign in these emotions in the face of an apathetic system that won’t listen to her concerns.
The creature design is both stunning and horrible. It clearly shares some inspirational DNA with the elder god of The Ritual. However, where that beast could be graceful, at times even regal, Antlers gives us a mangier, sicklier, sinewy-looking monster. It is as if the nightmare that stalks the Scandinavian forest has a meth-addicted American cousin. As well as being visually staggering, the effect the monster evokes is scaffolded by the physicality of Scott Haze‘s performance as the afflicted Frank Weaver. This is also bolstered by some truly brutal sound design. The mixture of practical and computer effects is extremely well handled, while the gore throughout is visceral and wince-inducing. The scales tip a little too much in favour of CG in the final act, but for the most part the practical and the digital are effectively balanced and the monster feels like it has a real, weighty presence on screen.
The name of Guillermo Del Toro, who acted as producer, looms large over Antlers. It is featured prominently in all of the promotional materials and marketing around the film. However, it is unclear how much of a hand he had in steering the production. Although the theme of horrors viewed through the lens of childhood innocence seems textbook Del Toro, the film has a character that deliberately avoids his usual sense of wonder. Instead, it focuses on the shutting down of possibilities. The characters are all trapped by circumstance and the ghosts of their pasts. Even as the monster frees itself from captivity, their invisible cages remain intact.
The characters inhabit a bleak and cold landscape, punctuated by the rusting corpses of machinery from abandoned industries. Noises of carrion birds and radio reports on the opioid crisis and mass unemployment provide a miserable accompaniment. Policeman Paul is reduced to little more than a bailiff with a badge, grimly watching on as families are turfed out of their homes by banks. The cinematography evokes a sense of melancholy, and the washed-out visuals are a perfect illustration of a community being drained of life.
The film touches on child abuse, ecological collapse, economic deprivation and drug addiction. We’ve seen other reviewers paint this unwieldy mixture of heavy themes as a failing, an indicator of indecisiveness and having bitten off more than it can chew. We disagree. Unlike other ‘prestige’ or ‘elevated’ (sigh…) horror of recent years, Antlers is not intended to be a clear allegory of the protagonist’s personal demons. Unlike The Babadook‘s exploration of grief, or It Follows‘ farewell to innocence, Antlers doesn’t seem particularly interested in creating a coherent parable of individuals overcoming individual challenges. Rather, it’s about people drowning in systemic problems that they can’t possibly control. If it feels like an overwhelming barrage of negativity with no comforting allegorical thread to hang onto, we suspect that this is by design. It is, after all, how the characters must feel.
All in all, Antlers is more than solid as a creature feature. What it may lack in a coherent thematic through-line, it more than makes up for with its sense of atmosphere and the grounded depiction of its protagonists. Unfortunately its tone, which is generally dour but occasionally crosses the line into being a touch too self-serious, may make it less appealing to a Halloween audience. It seems unlikely that a pumped-up seasonal crowd would forgo the chaotic charms of Halloween Kills in favour of this slower-paced offering. If so, they are missing out. Director Scott Cooper has crafted an intelligent and at times moving film without scrimping on the guts and gore. Antlers is brutal, bleak and bloodthirsty.