I feel as though film releases lately have been consumed by horror movies. Part of this is because it is Halloween season, but even so I feel that the horror genre has been reinvigorated by an array of new and exciting releases. My favorite of all that 2021 has offered us is ANTLERS, the new film from acclaimed independent director Scott Cooper with a production credit from the legendary Guillermo Del Toro. Horror fans have waited since just about two years ago for this film to release because the film was pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the fact that viewers finally get to feast their eyes on more than just the trailer is supremely satisfying. It is also satisfying to watch ANTLERS and receive a masterfully-crafted slow-burn horror movie that builds an atmosphere nothing quite like anything else in theaters now. Evidently this film is not for everyone, but it is a film that creeps up on the audience in the best way possible and that contains serious care and thought put into the themes and effects.
As you could probably guess from the name, ANTLERS is a horror film that explores the concept of the Wendigo, an old Native American folktale that feeds off and evokes greed, hunger and mental weakness. However, the movie takes a very indirect approach to the tale. The story takes place in a small and isolated Oregon mining town and follows a 12-year-old kid (the astonishingly great Jeremy T. Thomas) who is not only troubled, but hiding something from his caring teacher (Keri Russell). As she begins to find out more and more about her student’s disturbing situation and her brother/sheriff (Jesse Plemons) gets involved, the truths become far more sinister and speak to the troubles that are plaguing everyone across the community.
Perhaps the aspect I most appreciate when a slow-paced horror movie is done correctly is the emphasis on character and themes that make the actual horror far more impactful. Much of the film is spent developing the difficult and hellish situation that 12-year-old Lucas finds himself in and exploring the trauma that teacher Julia carries around with her every single day. I was invested in both of these remarkably similar characters due to the two actors delivering top-notch performances that never feel over-dramatic or anything else but real. Jeremy T. Thomas in particular delivers one of the best child performances of the year and carries out some traumatic scenes that would have been taxing on the average adult, much less a 12-year-old kid. The audience feels a deep understanding of the years of generational trauma that has remained with these characters, which makes it all the more believable once the Wendigo becomes a major aspect of the story.
From a horror perspective, ANTLERS is expertly crafted in every way. Cooper builds tension like a director who has mastered horror in the past even though this is his first foray into the genre. From the first shots of the movie, he easily creates an atmosphere of dread and foreboding that culminates into full terror by the halfway point, with some of the best horror effects of the year. Much of the effects during the most terrifying scenes are practical with some CGI thrown in near the end, making these effects look visceral and real. Cooper nails every scene of body horror and presents images that will remain in the viewer’s mind for weeks at the very least. The gore is never either too much so that the audience gets desensitized or too little so that viewers will be bored. Every single scene of terror has a great impact and feels like a life or death situation even though the audience is simply watching from a third-person perspective, making ANTLERS a memorable theater experience and an amazing horror film.
Perhaps one of the most respectable decisions made when crafting ANTLERS is the respect shown to the indigeonous view of the folklore behind the Wendigo. The film does not present a whitewashed and empty version of the story, but presents it similarly to how the legend has been portrayed throughout history. This respect opens the door for deeper themes to be included about why the Wendigo is resurfacing when it is. While this question is left open to audience interpretation, the visual themes are plenty. Cooper constantly shows the scars put on the environment next to the town to show the damage done to the environment caused by human greed. He also emphasizes the cycles of trauma and abuse that spill down from generation to generation and that plague many families in today’s America. Whatever the reason may be, the thought put into the legend of the Wendigo is apparent, and the audience will not come away with just scares, but ideas about the state of society.
ANTLERS is currently getting mixed reviews from most critics and audience members, and I cannot fathom why. It succeeds at damn near everything it sets out to accomplish, and manages to be one of the more unnerving and psychologically powerful horror films of late. Sure, the pacing is nowhere near breakneck, but I don’t understand how the same people who sat through Dune or Titane and enjoyed them are complaining that ANTLERS is too slow. The narrative is compelling from the first scene to the last and Cooper makes ample time for the characters to develop fully before throwing violence in their faces. The movie never decides to explain the logic behind what is happening in detail, but this is never the point or focus to begin with so it doesn’t affect the story. ANTLERS is everything it possibly could have been for those who waited for two years to see it release, and it is a surefire candidate to become a cult classic in years to come.