Antlers debuts in theaters on Oct. 29.
There's a reason why the last few years have seen the horror landscape predominantly dominated by stories about trauma and grief. When done right, this can add a layer of existential and creeping dread that stays with you longer than any monster or killer can. Antlers lives in the space between minimalistic arthouse horror films that place emotional character drama over scares, while also trying to be a gruesome creature feature. While it does have effective horror imagery and a phenomenal monster, as well as thought-provoking ideas about parental neglect and trauma, it doesn't fully come together in a cohesive and satisfying way.
In its opening scene, director Scott Cooper introduces us to a small town in Oregon where the problems are not supernatural, but very much human. Drugs, unemployment, and domestic abuse are monsters that are already plaguing the town, and kids show up at school with clear signs of neglect, but everyone seems to turn a blind eye to avoid taking responsibility for others.
In the middle of this, we meet Julia (Keri Russell), who returned to her hometown out of guilt for having abandoned her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) when she left a traumatic situation years earlier and is now working as a school teacher. Julia is also the only person that seems to realize that one of her students, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), is not just drawing gruesome images of bloody and grotesque creatures, but exhibiting signs of abuse. Turns out, Lucas is indeed hiding a dark secret, and soon enough, the dead bodies start showing up as the town becomes victim of a mythological creature already hinted at in the film's title.
Antlers does many things right, starting with the way it looks. The entire film is covered in darkness or mist, which gives even the scenes set against the vastness of Oregon a feeling of claustrophobia. The only sources of light or color that escape the mist are the fiery reds of flares or the deep reds and blues of patrol cars, giving it a moody and saturated look that helps create an eerie atmosphere.
Adapted from the short story The Quiet Boy by Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca, who wrote the film with Cooper and Henry Chaisson, this very much feels like an extended, expensive episode of the Syfy show. The script takes a slow-burn approach, building a sense of mystique around Lucas and the dark secret he's hiding almost as if this was a spooky story being told around a campfire by friends.
In this way, Antlers takes the same approach to its creature as Alien and Jaws, very slowly building up to a reveal, and even there mostly surrounding it in darkness so that we never take a proper look. Rest assured, however, what we do see of the creature is absolutely magnificent, with designer Guy Davis crafting one of the best movie monsters in years, mostly in-camera. Even before we see the creature, Antlers boasts some truly horrific and grotesque imagery that could fit a theoretical fourth season of Hannibal, with dead bodies being mutilated and presented in ways that are as hard to look at as they are beautifully shot.
Outside of the creature horror, Antlers is best when focusing on Lucas and the way children can be forced into the adult role, needing to take care of their parents. Thomas is a revelation, conveying resilience and fear in a restrained way that breaks your heart with every scene, elevating him to the pantheon of great horror performances by kids. Less successful is the film's approach to Julia and her own childhood trauma. There are repeated quick flashes to explicitly sexual trauma in Julia's past, which serve only to illustrate that she recognizes Lucas' peril because she's been through some horror already, rather than to serve her own story of healing or overcoming her past. The film walks in the footsteps of the work of directors like Mike Flanagan, and it seems Antlers certainly wants you to think of his work when diving more into Julia's story without presenting the kind of catharsis or emotional conclusion that we’ve seen in stories like The Haunting of Hill House or Midnight Mass.
Likewise, despite efforts to connect the story of Antlers to a history of American myths and legends, and to connect supernatural horrors to the horrors faced by the community, it resorts to tired tropes of using Native culture for window dressing. Despite the film beginning with a quote of warning spoken in an indigenous language, Antlers brings the one Native actor in its cast only for a mandatory exposition dump in the third act, his only purpose to serve the two white leads of the film without getting any background of his own.