Antlers arrives in cinemas nationwide on Friday 29th October.
In a once-prosperous Oregon mining town, darkness lurks in the remnants of the deep mines beneath. It’s an ancient evil that requires a human soul for life, lying patiently in wait for thousands of years for a host to come along. Once that host is found, it slowly consumes them, transforming their body into a mere husk as the beast inside matures, waiting for release. This beast knows no boundaries, its taste for flesh, its driving force. The beast’s name is the Wendigo, an ancient mythological creature feared by First Nation folk, and its arrival is hidden from view by a child desperate to protect his father and brother.
On reading my introduction, you may expect Antlers to inhabit the creature horror sub-genre, and you would be right in many ways. Here, Scott Cooper’s folklore-inspired horror does indeed play with many of the creature horror themes we are accustomed to in cinema. But, on a deeper level, Cooper’s beautiful and terrifying movie explores themes far darker than the mythical beast at its heart. Here Cooper reflects and dissects themes of neglect, abuse and socio-economic change that are far scarier than the beast beneath the town’s rotting streets.
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Based on the brilliant short story “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, many will focus on the film’s producer Guillermo del Toro, in choosing whether to watch Antlers on the big screen. But, while del Toro’s influence is clear in the design of the Wendigo and the atmospheric horror surrounding its appearance, this is very much Scott Cooper’s film. After all, while del Toro’s talent for fantasy horror is on display in abundance, Antlers is a social horror at its heart. Here, Cooper’s eye for nuanced character-based storytelling open to multiple interpretations elevates Antlers beyond the standard horror fare.
Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) has recently returned to her family home in Oregon to live with her brother, the local sheriff, Paul (Jesse Plemons). However, Julia’s arrival back in town as a teacher at the local school hides the deep scars of her past abuse at the hands of her father. Meanwhile, a young, insecure and damaged boy named Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) sits in his dark, cold house, watching a bolted door with apprehension and fear. Lucas has just collected roadkill to feed the beast that lies in slumber behind the door, but its taste for flesh remains unquenched as it pounds on the door demanding more.
Every day Lucas arrives in Julia’s class looking dirty, uncared for and scared, while his drawings in lessons are both terrifying and disturbing. But when Julia decides to intervene in the boy’s family life, suspecting possible physical abuse and neglect, she finds a boy haunted by the need to protect his family at any cost.
FROM RIGHT TO LEFT, KERI RUSSELL, JEREMY T THOMAS AND JESSIE PLEMONS STAR IN ANTLERS ©️SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
Antlers’ classic monster horror is laced with a far more human terror, a technique also seen in Jeremiah Kipp’s outstanding Slapface (2021). Here, Cooper embraces many classic horror techniques while offering us a Stephen King-Esque world of small-town terrors. Cooper’s movie excels in stunning sound design that laces moments of silence with sudden audio shocks as the horror of Lucas’s world becomes clear. Equally powerful is the cinematography of Florian Hoffmeister, who surrounds the audience with the dereliction and decay of a dying industrial town – the houses, vacant mines and railroads slowly succumbing to nature as the town gradually vanishes from view.
However, Antlers true power sits within its discussions on abuse, neglect and trauma. Here, there is no rose-tinted view of childhood, no easily defined escape routes and no simple saviours. In Antlers, Lucas is faced with an impossible set of decisions layered with feelings of love, duty and security – his heartbreaking need to protect his younger brother and father, his sole concern as he navigates the horror of the world around him.
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Meanwhile, Julia’s desperate attempts to save a child from the scars that torment her are laced with her deep-seated need for self-recovery. The result of her mission to rescue Lucas is an unavoidable and heartbreaking decision that will only add new layers to her trauma. Here, Antlers shines in its performances and assured direction, with Jeremy T Thomas offering us a stunning performance reflecting the true horror of neglect and abuse. Here his young body hides the mind of a boy forced into an adult world, much like August Maturo in Slapface.
However, while powerful, Antlers occasionally lacks enough time to flesh out some of its core messages. And while terrifying, its creature horror and jump scares at times clash with the need to expand on its social terror. But, this is a minor criticism in what is essentially a haunting deep dive into the horror of abuse and its perpetuating cycle of trauma. For me, Antlers is nothing short of a formidable and terrifying labyrinth of horror, and as the credits rolled, I found myself hoping this was just the first of many horror movies from Cooper.