| Antlers

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Now showing in cinemas


4/5 Stars


Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) returns to her small home town in Oregon after twenty years to take up a teaching job at the local elementary school. As she struggles to come to terms with the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father in the same house in which she is now staying with her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), she becomes concerned for a little boy in her class, Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) who exhibits all the signs of abuse. What she soon finds out, however, is that this is no ordinary abuse but one driven by powerful supernatural forces.


When “serious” directors who have made their names on “serious” Oscar-winning films turn their attention to genre filmmaking, the results can be and often are disastrous. Just take a look at Quantum Solace to see how bad things can go as the director of Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball (Marc Foster) and the writer of Million Dollar Baby and Crash (Paul Haggis) teamed up to create one of the worst, most incoherent and badly told Bond films ever. There are, however, times when “serious” filmmakers really click with the genre material they’re tackling, adding an accomplished, often substantial flair to even the most straightforward, generic plots.

Fortunately, though it isn’t perfect, Antlers falls very much in the latter camp.

Co-written (with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca; adapting the latter’s short story, The Quiet Boy) and directed by Scott Cooper, an acclaimed filmmaker most famous for the beautiful Crazy Heart and a series of gritty crime dramas like Black Mass and Hostiles, Antlers is a highly atmospheric, beautifully shot and expertly played prestige-horror films that uses its supernatural trappings to tell a very serious story about neglect and abuse. It’s about as utterly humourless as you might expect, and some of its allegorical aspects don’t quite land, but this is effective horror with something real to say.

These days, it’s hard not to compare this sort of horror (the thoughtful, character-driven kind) with the work of Mike Flanagan, but the most obvious comparison here is to the film’s executive producer, Guillermo del Toro. It doesn’t have the warmth, humour and sense of wonder of something like The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth (and is nowhere near as good as either of those masterpieces), but it feels of a piece with them. Not in a way that detracts from the unique vision and style of its director, but in the way that real-world horrors reflect and often supersede the supernatural ones – though, unlike del Toro’s own films, there ain’t no sympathy for the Devil (or Wendingo) here at all – and in the absolutely incredible creature effects that are, presumably, physical as much as they are computer-generated. The body horror, in particular, has a tactile, gooey physicality that gives the whole thing a visceral punch.

This obviously means that splatter fans who are looking for something fast and thrilling may well not get along with Antlers at all and would probably be better served by Halloween Kills, which though I haven’t seen and have no intention of seeing (how many freaking sequels does this 40 year old classic(ish) need, anyway?), looks like it should fit the bill. Antlers is a very slow burn that doesn’t show its monster beyond quick flashes for most of its runtime, and though it is actually pretty damn gory, it relies on tension and atmosphere to create a sense of unease and creeping horror rather than cheap scares. 

It features universally strong performances from its cast, but most especially from Jeremy T Thomas, who is astonishingly good as a young kid with a very big secret, but perhaps the biggest star here is the town in which this all happens, itself. Covered constantly in fog, it’s the sort of small town that has been left behind in America, one that is as decrepit as the people who live there. Cinematographer, Florian Hoffmeister, gives the film a real sense of location, even as that location is almost oppressively gloomy.

Arguably the one real flaw with this otherwise impressive piece of horror filmmaking, beyond its unremitting grimness and fairly bog-standard plot, is that it tries to be about too much at once. It’s primarily about the cycles of abuse – and it depicts that very well – but the film’s monster is connected to an environmentalist message more than to its central theme. I suppose a line can be drawn between domestic abuse and the abuse of the Earth, but it doesn’t quite work. By trying to connect these two themes, while also commenting, however briefly, on the opioid crisis, economically ravaged small towns, and Native American mythology, the whole thing feels overstuffed and slightly undercooked. All the more so considering how (wisely) compact the whole thing is: even with credits, it’s a minute short of 100 minutes. 

Still, even with its weaknesses, Antlers is a fine horror film – even if it does lack the sense of fun to make it good Halloween viewing.


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