Produced by none other than Guillermo Del Toro, Antlers arrives just in the nick of time. The film was put into development at Searchlight prior to the finalization of the Disney-Fox merger, and was then met with a wave of delays throughout the ongoing pandemic. Its journey from script to screen has been precarious, to say the least. Yet, there’s no better time to finally release the film, given the successful return of theaters and thriving Halloween season. These reasons certainly add to the ghastly effect Antlers has in the cinema, but this mystical tale is also pretty damn solid on its own. Not too surprising when looking at the talent attached.
Guillermo Del Toro’s producing career is perhaps a bit overlooked. His main projects always dominate the conversation, justifiably so, although the way this Mexican-born auteur has used his influence to propel smaller, rising voices to the limelight is just as praiseworthy. Infamously, the best of these projects have been often confused as being directed by Del Toro himself, due to their gothic and mythical natures (as well as Del Toro’s eye-catching name on the posters). Such examples include the feature debuts of J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage), Andy Muschietti (Mama), and Jorge Gutierrez (The Book of Life). All three of these names have since reached new heights, in fact, one would have lived under a rock to be unfamiliar with their work – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, both It films, and Netflix’s most recent animated series, Maya and the Three.
Admittedly, this type of success was missing from Del Toro’s last produced project, 2019’s lacking adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Yes, it featured some noteworthy monster effects and moody tones, but it opted for a more conventional approach in landing scares and trying to make a distinct concept as commercially viable as possible. These are the same burdens that unfortunately hold Antlers back from reaching maximum potential. However, unlike Scary Stores, director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) is able to maintain strong pathos and deliver memorable moments of classic horror along the way.
Aptly set in a small Oregon town, Antlers explores the haunting reaches of generational trauma through the unlikely connection between a school teacher and one of her distanced students. Both still coming to terms with the loss of one parent and scarring abuse from the other, they must put their metaphorical demons to rest in order to stop a literal one in its tracks. The Wendigo has physically manifested itself from legends and beyond through the sheer suffering of this tight-knit community. A curse long in the making, this diabolical spirit is the ultimate repercussion of many human-caused disturbances on what was once a pure land, including but not limited to violence, drug addiction, and disregard for nature. A narrative that could have easily been too heavy-handed is instead translated quite smoothly thanks to Cooper’s precise direction.
At its best, Antlers lets its sensitive themes get the message across naturally, letting what’s on screen speak for itself rather than spend too much time spelling it out for an audience. While some might argue that Cooper touches upon more issues than he can actually comment on, Antlers isn’t looking to give easy answers. Some themes, such as abuse, are explored more directly, letting their true horrors surface and shake those watching to their core. Meanwhile, others are expressed more subtly, fitting neatly into the background of things. The film is allowed to reach some surprisingly dark territory, though it never comes across as uneven thanks to a suitable cast.
Keri Russell and Jeremy T. Thomas carry Antlers as the central duo, respectively. Jesse Plemons also gets in on some of the monster frenzy, which is always a good thing! Although, there is something really to be said about Thomas, who arguably gives one of the most chilling performances from a child actor in recent horror. Thomas is the anchor of the story; a rare quality in horror where the film’s bleak atmosphere is aided by the child protagonist’s performance instead of the other way around. That being said, Cooper builds a formidable, eerie atmosphere – one that is effectively creepy from start to finish.
Regrettably, Antlers isn’t without its fair share of setbacks, some more jarring than others. For a film that took so long to finally reach the screen, it’s evident that there was some notable retooling in the editing phase. Certain images from the early trailers are nowhere to be found, which is hardly an issue. It becomes more of a concern when it simply feels like much-needed parts of the movie are missing? Antlers works like a one-two punch, run from the monster then discover its weakness and kill it. This structure makes for a simple yet effective watch, that’s also easier to market, but leaves much to be desired in terms of characterization as things start to quickly wrap up before one knows it.
Finally, the film’s default appropriation of an indigenous legend should not go unsaid. Cooper directly worked with native consultants to ensure an honorable portrayal of the Wendigo – a spirit from folklore dating back to the First Nations. And these contributions, combined with Cooper and Del Toro’s own original ideas, do end up creating something seemingly respectful and unique. When compared to far worse offenders of appropriating native legends, such as The Curse of La Llorona, this film stands on top. It just feels repetitive when the only native character in the story serves to just explain his culture to the white leads, then stand aside as they go on to defeat the evil. Despite Antlers‘ best attempts, one can’t help but question why these stories aren’t getting made with more indigenous actors at the forefront? Just some food for thought moving forward.
Will Scott Cooper see the same success as Guillermo Del Toro’s previous proteges? He definitely displays enough craft here to warrant it. Even with its few slip-ups, Antlers is still admirable for its pure dedication to darkness. In retrospect, the film often veers into places that are more mature than what one would expect. It makes some bold swings and that might just be enough to make up for its shortcomings and birth its own dedicated following in due time. If that won’t due to the trick, then Cooper and Del Toro’s superb Wendigo design, brought to life through a mix of VFX and practical effects, absolutely will.