One of the excuses one can often make for horror movies is how characters are never exactly aware they are in one. That can excuse moments where choices are made to investigate strange noises or go off into dark distances. Antlers goes out of its way to exploit this logic frequently. Yet, it feels consistently unable to capitalize off the opportunity to do more. Despite its moody filmmaking and consistent tone, this overqualified cast is no match for a script that can’t find more interesting ways to push characters out of their comfort zone and into the presence of a deadly supernatural beast.
A compelling enough cold open sets up the first instance of characters wandering into dark spaces where nothing good will emerge. Weeks later, following a title card drop, we begin to follow a school teacher in a small town in Oregon. This is Julia (Keri Russell), an individual with a troubled past, established early on by how she glances at bottles of alcohol she is tempted to buy. Or is she associating another memory with the liquor on display? Julia soon finds herself concerned for one of her students, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). Showing signs of abuse, Julia learns Lucas lost his mother at the same young age as her, bringing about other past memories of her father. Can she help?
Things aren’t so simple. As it turns out, Lucas is secretly keeping some sort of creature inside his house, behind a locked door. But why? Director Scott Cooper takes a slow burn approach to the various reveals explaining Lucas’ creepy living arrangement. He also leaves no room for any other interpretation when tying this horror element directly to the afflictions facing the main characters. Antlers is very much a film about facing down childhood trauma and abusive situations. It’s also a monster movie.
To the film’s credit, there’s an emphasis on keeping the beast cloaked in darkness. By the time it is revealed, there’s an emphasis on utilizing practical effects to best show it off. Producer Guillermo del Toro’s influence shines brightest in those moments. However, Antlers at least knows how to hold back in showing its full hand. With that in mind, holding back the monster should ideally mean getting plenty of time to develop these characters. Unfortunately, the actors can only do so much to elevate what’s been given to them.
I can understand the first half of Antlers keeping certain aspects of these characters and the story held at a minimum for the sake of establishing a particular, if overly serious, atmosphere. Jesse Plemons co-stars as Paul, Julia’s younger brother and the local sheriff. Without explicitly stating much, the way he speaks with Julia says enough about their relationship. A few other supporting characters (Amy Madigan, Rory Cochrane) offer up enough minor details, while Lucas’ outcast nature is easily emphasized by his violent drawings, and the bullies who tease them.
Ideally, this should build up to more. While the theme is clear, the idea to wrap that around the story of the Wendigo (a mythological creature from Native American folklore) should be more compelling. Instead, the film never seems to want to switch out of its low gear. Not every horror movie needs to pump up the manic energy just because it features an 8-foot-tall deer-type monster. Still, Antlers eventually finds itself in sore need of a jolt to add more suspense to this incredibly familiar story.
Instead, the film leads its characters down predictable paths towards jump scares and a climbing body count. This may be expected regardless of execution, but when “fool me once, shame on you” begins applying to the multiple characters who walk over to the same location where something terrible has transpired, it gets tiresome. This is a film working with a script that can’t understand how moving on or subverting a choice can benefit story momentum.
The effort put into other areas is certainly present. Russell does a good enough job carrying the film. Balancing her efforts to get through her past memories while attempting to steer young Lucas toward better opportunities is an important beat that comes through well enough. Newcomer Thomas sells his role as a young kid put in an impossible scenario of being a child and the caretaker of monsters.
While being a film with a low enough budget to make it clear Antlers was working with a minimum of locations, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister does a fine job with his use of shadows, and an overall design to show a sense of dismay flowing through the town via the main characters involved. I only wish the editing was stronger, so the film could better handle how to shock the audience with its jumps or horrific moments, rather than tip its hand so clearly.
Antlers isn’t turning over any new stones. Between The Ritual and The Babadook, much of this ground has been covered more effectively in the past. However, while a letdown given the various individuals involved, there’s a spine of a decent enough horror film in here. The shining elements are the cast that knows how to undersell their parts, and good enough visual strengths to hold it together. I wish the film added some extra wrinkles or more edge to what was taking place. As it stands, it’s an okay release for spooky season.