Antlers (2021)

NOVEMBER 3, 2021


If my memory hasn't failed me, Antlers is the last of the delayed horror movies whose trailers appeared nearly every time I went to the drive-in over the past eighteen months (the others were Candyman, Night House, and Spiral). When you add in the times I've seen it before the normal theatrical excursions I've had since (including Night House itself!), I've probably seen the trailer thirty times by now, which could be a record? But if anything it makes me appreciate the movie all the more, as it doesn't really give the whole thing away; despite my overexposure to two minutes' worth of its footage, it was a pretty fresh viewing experience.

Not that the trailer was misleading or anything; it tells you what we're dealing with (a Wendigo) and also shows that its young protagonist, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas, who is terrific) is feeding it and keeping it locked up. But the devil's in the details, and thankfully that's where the trailer didn't show too much, opting for atmospheric scare shots and a general vibe as opposed to spelling everything out. Even basic things, like the fact that Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons' characters are siblings, were things I learned from actually watching the movie, which was just kind of amusing when you consider how long (not)Fox Searchlight has been trying to sell me on it.

That said, while I enjoyed the movie a lot, it does suffer a bit from being based on a very short story by Nick Antosca. The basics are accounted for in his story (teacher, kid, "pet" Wendigo) but if they were to film it to the letter, it'd probably be about ten minutes long. That means adding a lot to the feature, including more on the Wendigo (not even mentioned in the story; Antosca just describes a man-eating monster with, yes, antlers), a bully for Lucas, a prologue about his family, and an abusive past for Russell and Plemons' characters. But it never quite shakes that "expanded from a short story" feeling; Plemons' sheriff character basically has to keep saying "my hands are tied!" or something every time something happens to allow it to keep going to hit feature length, because if the cops were more proactive the movie would be over in about a half hour or so. I think it takes something like three characters to go missing before he finally starts asking questions.

Which means it's great that they casted Plemons, because how can you not love that guy? Let him bumble about, bless him! But he and Russell's character also had an abusive upbringing, and here the script could have used a little more expansion. Not that I want awful details about whatever their dad did to them, but their mom is barely mentioned, and Russell eventually ran away (feeling guilty for leaving her brother to deal with the abuse alone), but has returned to town for... reasons? It's never really explained why she came back at all. We can assume it has something to do with her being an alcoholic; Russell completely nails a wordless "newly sober person dying for a drink" moment with just a mere pursing of her lips (before we even see the booze she's eyeing), but again, details are not forthcoming. In a more densely plotted film, it would be enough (honestly, for a horror movie it's, if anything, an above average amount of backstory), but when the plot is basically "a teacher finds out her troubled student is living with a monster" and little else, these shortcomings are easier to notice.

However, the monster stuff is all great! The creature itself, rarely even glimpsed until the final reel, is a terrific design (fans of The Ritual will be into it) that justifies the film's kind of silly title, and there's a jump scare kill that even gave me a jolt. I was a bit disappointed when I read the story after to discover that the film denied us the second monster Antosca had envisioned (I don't want to spoil the particulars), but the solo act works fine. And thanks to Thomas' performance, it's actually a fairly upsetting sequence of events; you really feel for this poor kid and how much he has lost/loses in the film. Plus, without getting into spoilers, one could compare to something like The Wolf Man or The Fly in that "Antlers" is not a monster by choice; a key flashback moment about an hour into the film is pretty surprising when you discover how far along the doomed character was before losing their humanity.

It's also a lovely looking film, albeit for a grimy-ass town. As usual, Canada is used for our Northwest (Oregon, specifically; a switch from the story's West Virginia setting), but it's a pretty good fit - nothing really stood out as being "off" to my eyes. They didn't even cast Julian Richings or Stephen McHattie! The major characters played by Canadian cast members are Michael Eklund and Graham Greene, whose role definitely could have been fleshed out more (he has no counterpart in the short story but feels like a character whose significance was reduced due to the adaptation process, funnily enough). And producer Guillermo Del Toro brought his Pan's Labyrinth composer Javier Navarrete along for the ride; it's not an "all timer" score or anything but it at least doesn't sound like every other goddamn movie out there. I saw the new Bond the next day and while I liked it a lot, Hans Zimmer's score was lazy even by his modern standards - half the action climax was set to a barely reworked version of his Dark Knight theme. So any time I see a movie with a score that isn't constantly reminding me of fifteen other movies, I feel I should point it out. Encouragement is key!

With a little more character work this could have been a contender for my top 10 of the year (if that was something I bothered to do), but as is I'm just happy to see an original and professionally made "Hollywood" monster movie again, since they are so rare in this world of James Wannabe efforts and sequels. I don't think the long delay helped it any (even Del Toro's name didn't seem to help it much; though maybe that wouldn't have been the case if there wasn't a genuine GDT film coming out in a few weeks), but I'm glad I got to see it in a theater instead of having it become another covid casualty, sent to streaming for audiences who never take one eye off their phone the entire time. Keep up the good fight, filmmakers, and I'll keep buying tickets.

What say you?


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