You know it’s a bad sign when one of the first common questions for a recent film is “What happened to Antlers?”
Antlers, released in October 2021, had been one of those films that horror films had been drooling in anticipation of while enduring COVID-driven delays. The film was produced by Guillermo del Toro and featured a gorgeous, intriguing trailer. But it opened to lukewarm reviews and was largely dropped from theaters in a few weeks.
In this reviewer’s opinion, Antlers is its own private tragedy (and not the one it’s intended to be). It’s got a script and visuals that should stand out, but the end product is largely forgettable.
The story is beautifully shot in a fictional town that might as well have the name “Deaths of Despair, Oregon.” Our heroine, Julia, is a teacher returned to her childhood community with Issues re: that childhood. Her entire concept is defined as “The Gritty Version of a Lifetime Movie protagonist”—thus, Keri Russel of Felicity fame is perfectly cast in this role.
Julia encounters a sea of (ahem, white) children and families crumbling because the something-or-other mine has closed and meth/opioids are proving in greater supply than social services. But Julia is very concerned over one little boy, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). Lucas just has that special Desperately In Need of Help aura that stands out in a crowd.
What Julia cannot imagine is that Lucas is not surviving your run-of-the-mill ‘trouble at home.’ Lucas is struggling to survive and keep his brother alive as a sickness transforms their father into a monstrous beast.
One strong note in this film’s favor is the child actors. Thomas and the actor who plays the younger brother (Sawyer Jones) have a true heartbreaking quality to their performances. And the heart of those performances is the true horror of the film.
Children in horror movies can all trace back to the same aspect: they know too much. They know too much because they are evil (The Omen, Village of the Damned) or have special powers (The Sixth Sense, The Shining). But a rare few know too much because they have had to choose between remaining children or fighting to survive (Aliens). Those children are the most horrific because they are the most real. Lucas is the best-acted example I’ve ever seen of this time of character.
On paper, this idea should work. And it almost does. But the film can’t keep a grip on its heart. Somehow, it never goes far enough. You don’t feel invested in most of the characters you encounter, the deaths aren’t given sufficient gravity or gore to be memorable. This is a film in which multiple children die, and I just didn’t care. I might be dead inside, but I was still feeling livelier than most of the plot as it plodded along. Oh, the school bully is killed by the monster? I am shocked. Simply shocked.
The gore and monster transformations are stomach-twistingly gnarly. That was great, but then the film holds back on its kills. While we could’ve had a full-on bloodbath of a monster tearing through victims, we’re granted one good on-screen death.
The monster in question, from which we get the title, is a wendigo. And while I know most non-horror nerds haven’t been overly exposed to the creature, I am a horror nerd and I am really over wendigos. In particular, I’m really over the trope of “weird how this area only has 1 native person around to conveniently explain what a wendigo is.” Graham Greene has the dubious honor of being the only Native American featured in a film that takes place in the Pacific Northwest (where there are tribal lands and communities) and focusses on a Native American mythical creature (Great Plains-area tribes).
And I think that ties into why I had difficulty buying into the imposed atmosphere of Antlers as a whole. We’ve been through almost every step of this story before. The heavy ‘deaths of despair’ onus of the film is worn out (both as a setting and as a white-centric narrative). The actual unique aspects of the film aren’t highlighted nearly enough. And when things aren’t unique or routine, they’re dumb and take you out of the film entirely. (For example, someone finds a body in the woods and rather than freaking out or calling 911, he casually informs the sheriff when he bumps into him at the local diner. This is not played for laughs.).
I wouldn’t call Antlers a failure, as much as a significant disappointment. For those curious, check out Antlers when it gets released on digital later this month (December 2021).