Scott Cooper’s first venture into the realm of horror, Antlers, is an utterly nerve-shredding experience. Antlers is produced by the gothic master himself, Guillermo Del Toro, and stars Keri Russell, Jeremy T. Thomas, and Jesse Plemons. After being stuck in a cycle of ongoing delays caused by the pandemic, Cooper’s mythological folklore horror film is finally being shown to audiences around the world. It’s a gothic horror with clear intentions to find deeper meaning in its allegorical messaging and ancestral bounds of First Nations culture.
The film follows Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), a lonely, isolated school kid who, after a horrific accident involving his father and younger brother, is left to fend for himself. Lucas’ school teacher, Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), becomes curious about his living situation as she notices Lucas walking home alone one day after school. However, things turn out to be far worse than conceivably imagined as a demonic creature tears its way through Oregon’s forests.
On the horror and filmmaking front, Antlers is a tremendous success. Yet, its obvious emotional and psychological intentions come across as rather thin. Perhaps some trimming of its broad intentions would’ve benefited as it tries to grapple with a truckload of emotional baggage, while still dealing with the creature feature side to its story. Nevertheless, Cooper goes full-on with his folklore-come-to-life premise. The atmosphere crafted is one of pure, unrelenting tension, rife with chilling scares that beckon spectators to jump out of their skin. One is always on edge, waiting for the Antlered creature to strike. Thomas’ performance is a large factor in the unease felt, whether it be him mysteriously lounging his way back to his deserted home or chopping up animal remains in the wilderness, his blank stares are a consistent captivation.
Javier Navarette’s pounding score paired with the film’s excellent, crackling sound design is an undeniable horror amplifier, enhancing the gothic mood of the film, tenfold. Flesh ripping, bones cracking, Antlers’ soundscape is unshakeably potent and unforgettable. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s shots are a never-ending feast of dark, yet deliciously lit setups. The red and blue wailing lights of the Sherrif’s car siren almost exclusively light numerous scenes in the midst of the pitch-black Oregon nights. This high contrast lighting style evokes an instantly foreboding mood, which paired with Hoffmeister’s slow but controlled camera movements makes for suspense-filled horror filmmaking at its most aesthetically accomplished. Leaning into these gloomy sensibilities is precisely what makes the scary side of Antlers so brilliant, it’s unabashedly a bloodcurdling horror film.
Guillermo Del Toro’s touch is felt less than in most of his other producing work, apart from the gothic and fantastical elements. It lacks Del Toro’s touching and poetic heart that always manages to find some beauty in each respective dark and tragic horror-related story. However, in Cooper’s film, there is no such beauty in the blackness. There is a substantial chance that the heavy “produced by Guillermo Del Toro” marketing push could see some Del Toro aficionados disappointed. Scott’s vision is clearly sinister to the core and tries to find something more profound in delving into agonizing trauma and suffering that plague his characters. Each character, whether it be the Meadows siblings or Lucas himself, has a slew of notifiable trying and traumatic moments throughout the film. It’s here where Cooper’s band of actors are put on trial to show off the breadth of their performative skills. They scream, they shout, they quiver in fear, but despite all their efforts, this is where the screenplay’s shabby, conventional writings are exposed as the film’s thin emotional veil is laid bare. Using such traumatic upheaval as well as First Nations culture, without including barely any on-screen or off-screen representation, feels like a ploy to mine on other people’s experiences in a somewhat exploitative way.
First Nations folklore is undoubtedly bewitching and the monster Cooper chose for Antlers is evidence of that, when the film is fully focused on horror it’s first-rate entertainment. Ultimately, the isolation of Antlers‘ small-town, forest-filled setting breeds thrilling tension as well as being inclusive of believability due to its secluded locale. One could never suspend their disbelief if the film was set in, say, the concrete-lined streets of somewhere like London. It goes without saying that Antlers is exceedingly indelible when wading knee-deep in its shadowy elements, but it goes one step too far in the direction of cliche as it stumbles to find naturalistic expression of the trauma it tries to depict. Antlers could’ve been a modern horror for the ages, ranked among this century’s best, if only Cooper and his collaborators had reflected on their mistakes.
Searchlight Pictures will release Antlers in the U.S. only in theaters on Oct 29, 2021.
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures