From monster movies of the early years of Hollywood, to the Hitchcock era of psychological thrillers, to the occult and slasher flicks of the 70’s and 80’s, to the films of today, the horror genre has constantly evolved over the years. Out of all the different styles of horror flicks, the subgenre that I think we see the least of is the monster film. Particularly in recent years, I feel that the horror genre is filled with films about either the occult (spirits, possession, witches) or horrible people (cults, murderers, kidnappers, etc.), and the occasional monster film is almost always framed as more of a sci-fi or thriller rather than actual horror. The lack of monster films coming out is a big reason why I was excited to watch Scott Cooper’s latest film, Antlers (2021) and even more so knowing that the monster involved is one of my favorites out of all the mythologies out there, the Indigenous People’s legend of the Wendigo.
Based on the short story “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, Antlers (2021) follows Julia Meadows (played by Keri Russell), a middle school teacher in an isolated Oregon town, and her brother Paul (played by Jesse Plemons) who is a police officer in the town. As Julia begins teaching her class about stories and fairytales, she notices that one of her students, Lucas (played by Jeremy T. Thomas) is acting very strange and showing multiple signs of abuse. As Julia and Paul investigate, Lucas must hide and protect his father (played by Scott Haze) and his brother Aiden (played by Sawyer Jones) as they have developed a strange illness, after a monstrous encounter at a local coal mine, that is causing them to crave dead flesh and morph into something inhuman.
When I came out of the theater, I didn’t know what to think of Antlers (2021). Starting with the positives, it has some great body horror, brooding suspense, a really cool looking monster, and a handful of really good performances. The overall atmosphere and tension of the movie was great (it is very obvious that the great Guillermo Del Toro is a producer of the film), with Lucas character’s motivations and interactions with his family bringing a great sense of intrigue and anticipation for it all to go wrong. Once it does go wrong, the body horror is very intense and awesome to see/hear in the theater and the design of the Wendigo is incredible. Other than the incredible horror visuals and the suspense, this film would be nothing without the performances of Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, and young star Jeremy T. Thomas. Russell and Plemons both deliver great performances (despite some of the awful material they were given) and did a great job of carrying the story. That said, Thomas is the real star of the movie. Every scene the child actor is in, he steals the scene. His performance was absolutely exceptional considering his age, and I think he is yet another child actor that we need to keep an eye on—he was great.
Now for the negatives: there is no joy in movie, several character actions had zero thought put into them, the opportunities with the monster were wasted and the film started to stall out and fizzle to the finish line. I don’t require horror movies to be filled with jokes or camp, but there is zero happiness found in the entire movie. All of the characters are depressed and everything is bleak which makes a lot of the characters really hard to watch without the suspense of waiting for the monster, but the suspense wasn’t enough to keep the story from starting to feel monotone. With character motivations, it is very clear to me that the writers do not understand Child Protective Services or teacher/school’s responsibility to report abuse and how they have to do it. A heavily focused plot point in this film is a school recognizing abuse and both the police and the school telling the teacher the exact wrong thing to do. Normally, I can overlook these types of logical missteps and still enjoy the film, but it was clear that the writers had these illogical character actions happen simply to move the plot instead of using literally anything else. What made the poor plot points to irk me even more, however, is how they led to a very unsatisfying ending. The Wendigo they designed for the film was incredible, but it was barely in the film. The quick glimpses at it leading up to the reveal were great at building the tension, but once it was finally out, it felt like Scott Cooper had no idea what to do with it. This is when the film felt like it had lost itself a little bit, and resigned itself to setting up a sequel rather than finish its own story strong.
Did I enjoy watching Antlers? Yes I did. The buildup to the conclusion was a suspenseful journey, and the three leading performances were very captivating. However, between the questionable plot points, the monotonous dourness, and the waste of a fantastic monster, I was left feeling slightly disappointed. Had they given their monster more screen time, or settled for a different conclusion (its hard to say a specific without spoiling the final scenes), I believe this film had the potential to be one of the great monster movies. Unfortunately, it is going to join the ranks of the slightly forgettable. That said, if you need a horror movie to cap off your Halloween season this year, I would recommend you give it a try as I suspect a lot of people are going to like it a lot more than I do.
Antlers (2021) is rated R for violence including gruesome images, and for language.
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