Antlers (dir. Scott Cooper, 2021) – A middle-school teacher grows concerned about the wellbeing of her student, who seems to be hiding dangerous secrets about his family.
From the Djinn to fae, old folklore is where many of the most chilling on-screen creatures are birthed. That includes the infamous Wendigo that has evoked shivers in myriad horror films and TV specials, from Antonia Bird’s masterwork Ravenous to a particularly memorable Supernatural arc.
As its title suggests, Antlers marks the most recent revisit to the gory flesh-eating subgenre. In this, the beast has made a den out of an abandoned mine, where it meets its next victims in two unsuspecting intruders. Meth dealer Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) and his son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) survive the brutal encounter, barely.
Forced to keep them behind locked doors, only his older son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) knows their secret. The child struggles alone to live a normal life, while keeping his family alive. His silent predicament soon draws concern from his middle-school teacher Julia (Keri Russell), whose suspicion of child abuse only leads her down a much darker hole.
The premise isn’t novel. The mythology is never fully explored either, leaving a severely underused Native American character on the sidelines. Still, the creature feature will claw more than a few horror fans in with its sympathetic performances, particularly with young Lucas. Granted that the Wendigo leaves no room for ambiguity as to what is truly happening, the animalistic threat draws close parallels to a very human one.
It is harrowing to watch how the child is left to his own demise despite his clear struggles at home. Even when Julia raises the alarm, she is promptly dismissed by the school principal, then Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff and her own brother. The story is grounded by this common helplessness and distress of domestic abuse victims, dismissed by everyone until it is too late.
Ultimately, the silver of depth vanishes and the film leans in favour of the kills. There is plenty of gory chomping and tearing as the Wendigo digs into its unwary human meals. With horror maestro Guillermo del Toro in the picture as the producer, the monster’s overhauled appearance certainly makes its gruesome mark.
The dark atmosphere is effective, too. From man to beast, the Wendigo’s metamorphosis takes place gradually. Its victim’s last bit of humanity fades away as antlers protrude to the unsavoury beat of unsettling crunches. Shrouded in shadows for the most part, the monster leaves our imagination to do much of the work. Thankfully, there is no better conjurer of fear than our own minds.
Antlers finds effective terror in its monstrous threat and strong performances, though the story squanders its potential for depth.
Antlers is now on Disney+.