It’s been a quiet year for horror so far, as theaters reopen and audiences return to the big screen. Only a handful of the genre’s films have managed to bust their way through our screens and impress, while a majority simply fade from theater to streaming without much regard at all. As such, the arrival of the Guillermo del Toro-produced “Antlers” piqued interests with ease, setting up sizable hype with a gruesome trailer to match.
Directed by Scott Cooper, “Antlers” tracks the bloody mayhem of folktale turned reality, as the mythical wendigo creature wreaks havoc on a sleepy Oregon town. The film centers on a young boy, Lucas (Jeremy Thomas), whose father is infected by the wendigo — and a troubled schoolteacher named Julia (Keri Russell), who notices concerning patterns in Lucas’ behavior. Upon investigation, Julia discovers the disturbing truth: Lucas’s father and brother are almost unrecognizable, morphing into inhuman creatures of indigenous lore.
For all that it is, for all that it’s trying to be, “Antlers” falls flat. A horror fan who’s looking for nothing but an abundance of blood, gore and cheap thrills might find the flick amusing at best, but no devotee of the genre will walk away with more than disappointment and deep emptiness, trying to fathom what they just watched. Despite its ambition, the film is never really able to get off the ground, and in moments when it nearly does, it stumbles and falls into every narrative trap imaginable. Even at times when it does truly scare, the audience almost becomes frustrated by viewing the many failures which have plagued “Antlers” from the outset.
The real trouble with “Antlers” boils down to a poor script and reckless execution. At almost every point, dialogue comes across as forced and unbelievable, and sequences that should be drawn out and buffered instead occur in rapid, neck-breaking succession. There are moments in the film where it’s unclear what the story is even about: maybe drug abuse, poverty or childhood trauma? One might never know, and it seems unclear if the script’s three co-writers knew either.
The writing craft here simply feels lazy and unclever. At the film’s key junctures, when there should be moments of epiphany and intrigue for the audience, the film opts to give exposition dumps from actors who don’t quite seem to grasp what they are saying. It seems to signify an apathy from the film’s creators that shows no passion for cinematic artistry and little respect for the art of storytelling. Unfulfilling, repetitive jumpscares and narrative tropes at every turn shouldn’t be the summation of a film with such ambition.
And, even in its moments of glory with beautifully twisted visual horror — no doubt inspired by del Toro’s keen eye — one can’t help but consider the culture from which the story is derived, and how plainly the film treats its indigenous characters. Cooper gives the film’s single indigenous character, Graham Greene’s Warren Stokes, almost no significant screen time. Despite the story profiting off of these folktales, it volunteers next to nothing to the true architects of this story, whose centuries of storytelling go utterly unrecognized and disregarded in “Antlers.”
On this sinking cinematic ship, the film’s cinematographer, Florian Hoffmeister, deserves praise for bringing some dimension to an otherwise dull affair. The sequence in which the titular creature emerges is a haunting one — in large part due to the efforts of on-set and production-level departments, such as art, makeup and visual effects. It’s a brilliant and horrific scene, the only one in the entire film that hits somewhere near its target. It is, unfortunately, not nearly enough to mend the film’s much larger wounds.
Much like what precedes, “Antlers” concludes with a muffled wail, attempting to set up some kind of last-ditch sequel with a “twist.” Sadly, the only thing following this film is the bitter taste that lingers in the audience’s mouths, lasting until horror’s next, hopefully more frightening, endeavor.