Antlers Review: Strong scares outweigh narrative shortcomings
Hostiles and Black Mass director Scott Cooper has had a hell of a time trying to get his latest film, Antlers, into theaters due to multiple delays and changing hands.
Antlers just finished production as the Disney/Fox deal was taking place, so it was immediately put on hold while things shook out and then was given an April 2020 release date. That prime April release date was then ripped away as COVID consumed the world leaving Antlers in limbo. Finally, it found an October slot right on Halloween weekend giving it all the potential to be a horror delight. However, while Antlers is able to be a terrifying Halloween theater experience, Cooper isn’t able to capitalize on the mythology its based in.
The film takes viewers into a small Oregon town where teacher Julia (Keri Russell) battles her inner demons while attempting to uncover the connection between troubled student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) and a string of disemboweled bodies throughout the town. Throughout meeting the characters and being introduced to the film’s central town, Cooper introduces a lot of lore that ends up going nowhere. Things like the town having a lot of financial problems that sees people getting evicted from their homes and running meth labs just to survive are shown and talked about but don’t really play a real role in the story. Perhaps it acts as a reason for Antlers’ mythological creature, the legendary Wendigo, to have come into the town given that it is birthed from depravity. However, these tidbits about the town don’t leave a big enough impact for that connection to land and it’s just feels like empty world-building.
The characters are also given lackluster depth as their established issues aren’t explored enough. Julia’s past issues with her abusive father clearly still haunt her and has caused fractures in her relationship with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons). Aside from a mention here and there though, it doesn’t have much pay off. It’s possible that this arc for Julia ends with her facing the Wendigo, but her issues and the common struggles between her and Lucas don’t connect in an impactful way to create a strong arc. Antlers’ biggest issues are that there’s a lot of recognizable narrative and thematic potential that never goes anywhere. It’s mostly because the film struggles to figure out whether it wants to focus on being an artsy character-driven folk horror story or just a straight-up crowd-pleasing scare-fest.
Personally, the film thrives more when it chooses the latter option as it fails to make use of its central mythology. The Wendigo is a legendary mythological terror seen in plenty of horror stories, very recently in Until Dawn, and even though they are pretty well known, it would’ve been nice to see their mythology be built out more in Antlers. Aside from one very tropey exposition sequence of Julia and Paul going to a local Native American man named Warren (Graham Greene), there isn’t much talked about with the Wendigo outside of the usual cannibal stuff. The mythology established ends up being super generic as the film doesn’t delve enough into the Native American culture within the town. A stronger emphasis and depth with the mythology could’ve also added something more to the personal arcs creating a more impactful journey of overcoming fears.
Antlers’ shortcomings in its themes, characters, and world-building are certainly a disappointment, but its scares and depiction of the Wendigo make it a total blast in theaters. The slower pace and artsier storytelling might detract some of the more mainstream horror moviegoers, but Cooper’s careful direction and the excellent creature design are built for a cinematic horror experience. Cooper shows a lot of great patience in setting up scares by comforting viewers with ease and silence and then making them shudder at the horrors that suddenly unfold. The gore is absolutely insane in this film too with the Wendigo’s cannibalistic appetite so plenty of gore hounds will leave pleased.
The creature design is also impeccable, which makes sense considering that a master of the genre like Guillermo del Toro is a producer. There’s a moment where Warren shows Paul and Julia a drawing of the Wendigo and it’s great how that demonic, folk depiction is brought out perfectly in the design. Lucas’ disturbing drawings also work in building the dark presence of the Wendigo that’s viciously shown in the way it eviscerates people to satisfy its undying hunger. It’s one of the creepiest horror monsters of year for sure and Antlers has one of the most visually horrifying transformation sequences that leaves a gruesome aftermath that everyone will leave talking about.
Where Antlers fails in creating a remarkable narrative that makes good use of its mythology and character-driven themes, it mostly makes up for it in being a memorable cinematic horror experience. Cooper’s direction and the awesomeness of Antlers’ central creature make the film a worthwhile enough watch – especially for those looking for some post-Halloween scares.