By Ben Konuch
“He’ll come for me. He needs me.”
The chilling atmosphere and sense of unease that “Antlers” manages to convey is nothing short of astonishing. This feeling starts as early as its opening text, a Native American warning about an all-corrupting evil. This warning is followed by a scene set on a bleak and dreary Oregon coastline, where a little boy is shown playing outside while he waits for his father to finish his work in a mine. What follows in this scene perfectly demonstrates where the strengths of “Antlers” lie: the sense of darkness, the building of tension, and the overwhelming sense of unsettledness. Unfortunately, “Antlers” never manages to fully realize the potential of its own premise.
“Antlers” is directed by Scott Cooper and produced by filmmaking legend Guillermo del Toro, but what interested me the most about the film was that it is based on a short story by Nick Antosca. Antosca was the showrunner of Syfy’s “Channel Zero,” one of my all-time favorite TV shows and the show that got me into horror way back when.
Director Scott Cooper and producer Guillermo del Toro collaborated to bring Nick Antosca’s short story to the big screen.
The reason I fell in love with “Channel Zero ” in the first place was the unique type of horror that Antosca was able to craft. Rather than relying too heavily on empty jumpscares or an overabundance of gore, he used these elements in careful moderation along with distinct world-building and cinematography to establish a genuine sense of uneasiness in his audience. Having loved Antosca’s previous works, I couldn’t wait to see “Antlers.”
Sure enough, my expectations were mostly well-founded. The film manages to flawlessly build a constantly rising sense of fear and tension thanks to Antosca’s sharp storytelling that effectively uses the “show, don’t tell” rule of horror. Never does the film revel in its horror or desensitize the viewer, meaning every scary moment has an impact.
Director Scott Cooper lends his own talents as a filmmaker, capturing scenes with his very distinct directorial style that lingers at just the right moments. An expression of terror on a child’s face, an uncomfortable journey through a main character’s nightmare, and the first real kill of the movie: all these scenes are shot with an uncompromising camera that refuses to cut away until it’s shown you just how horrified you should be.
Combine all this with the bleak, foggy visuals of a small Oregon town past its prime, and you have a movie with a tone and style that’s disturbing, twisted, and beautiful all at once. To top it all off, “Antlers” has a genuinely terrifying monster — both in concept and design — that makes the film not just unsettling but outright scary.
The stories told by Lucas’s twisted drawings make the audience as uncomfortable as the characters that find them.
Its muddled plot is where “Antlers” loses its strong footing. The premise itself is great, but its execution stumbles at key moments. The film follows a schoolteacher named Julia (Keri Russell), who has recently moved back to her childhood home after her father’s suicide to spend more time with her brother, the town’s sheriff. While adjusting back into small-town life, she notices Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a young, timid boy in her class who shows warning signs of abuse and malnourishment. Still reeling from the effects of her own abusive childhood, Julia set out to get Lucas the help he needs. However, Lucas has a darker secret: a terrible evil in his house that he attempts to keep at bay yet is slowly corrupting everything it touches — including Lucas and his baby brother.
The performances of the movie are good, with Thomas absolutely stealing the spotlight with his depiction of a heartbroken, frightened but fierce child. His might be one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen, and the way Russell plays opposite him as the stable, kind mother figure with a dark past of her own makes the movie extremely interesting from a character standpoint.
Julia (Keri Russell) is desperate to protect Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) from evils both within and outside.
However, the longer the movie goes on, the more the plot pales in comparison to the strength of its characters and acting. The movie attempts to weave in a moral lesson about abuse and what it does to its victims, but this concept never quite manages to get off the ground. These ideas are admittedly handled with respect and tact, but the film never gives these themes room to grow past just one or two scenes. However, the way those scenes play out implies that the filmmakers behind “Antlers” intended for those ideas to be the main themes of the movie rather than the brief side notes they end up being.
This is only the first warning sign of a much deeper issue: “Antlers” has a phenomenal premise that the rest of the movie never manages to live up to. The main themes aren’t given enough attention to shine through properly. The main monster is terrifying partially because its true form and nature are kept a mystery for most of the film, but once it’s fully revealed, it has only a few minutes of actual screen time. Worst of all, the tension and anxiety that “Antlers” establishes early on build and build to an explosive breaking point that never actually comes. The film lays the groundwork for a spectacular ending, then inexplicably chooses to end with a fizzle.
This problem of unsatisfying payoffs is prevalent throughout the film, and despite the strength of its atmosphere and sense of unease, the movie’s inability to realize its own potential keeps it from being truly great — both as a character-driven drama and as a true horror film.
For these reasons, I give “Antlers” a 7/10.
“Antlers” is now in theaters.
Ben Konuch is a freshman strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at wallyball with his friends.