Many a film release date fell victim to the pandemic. The early 2020 slate held such promise only to succumb to a mad rescheduling dash. Some of the most shuffled movies ended up being mid-budget horror movies, whose releases either occurred with little fanfare in the middle of spiking COVID cases or, as is the case with Scott Cooper’s Antlers, found themselves looking at a release in the waning months of 2021. Antlers, which premiered as part of L.A.’s annual Beyond Fest, is mostly worth the wait. A creepy little movie boasting impressive (and large) practical monster effects, it aims to tackle a few personal and societal issues. Some are more effective than others.
The long-awaited movie comes from producer Guillermo del Toro and director Scott Cooper. Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Nick Antosca and C. Henry Chaisson, from Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy.” It follows school teacher Julia (Keri Russell) as she returns to Oregon to live with her younger brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), who is the sheriff of their small town. It’s one of those strained but polite sibling relationships. Julia left years ago following some parental trauma, while Paul stuck around. He bears a bit of resentment since he had to stick it out with their father while she left it all behind.
Julia becomes concerned about one of her students, a quiet and often disheveled little boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). He seems malnourished and keeps drawing disturbing pictures of monsters and mutilation. Little does Julia know that Lucas has reason to think monsters are real. His father (Scott Haze), a town ne’er-do-well, is slowly succumbing to a strange sickness. The result of this sickness is a taste for human flesh, and a giant pair of titular antlers.
The creature effects in the movie are really excellent. The gradual transformation of Lucas’ father to a beast feels unpleasant and quite nasty. Cooper does an excellent job of making these scenes, plus the “feeding” that inevitably follows, as visceral and frenetic as possible. Once the creature is full size, the movie holds back on showing us more than an arm or a leg here and there, until the end. The design is impressive when we get its full glory.
But in addition to the monster itself, the story packs in some interesting parallels to non-supernatural child neglect. Lucas could just as easily be the son of a drug addict, still forced to take care of himself and his parent, under feeding himself to sustain the rampant needs of his guardian. Like any good monster movie, the line between mythical creature and human foible is pretty fine. We end up feeling incredibly sympathetic toward Lucas’ plight. Thomas’ performance and just general vibe does a great job to convey all of that, an especially impressive feat for such a young actor.
Where the movie doesn’t quite work is when we get to Julia and Paul’s backstory. It’s not Russell or Plemons’ fault, the story for them is just fairly pedestrian. Antlers finished initial production in November 2018 and I feel like this would have felt a bit stale had it come out even then. Adult returns home after an abusive childhood; takes care of a child with similar, though otherworldly parental issues; learns to overcome monsters both literal and metaphorical. It’s possibly the most common storyline of horror in the 2010s.
That said, there’s enough of interest, especially (and most importantly) in the story’s horror scenes that Antlers ends up a mostly satisfying, gloomy movie for your Halloween weekend. While the grown-ups didn’t really do it for me, the central child and the gnarly monster gave me enough to recommend it.
3 out of 5
Antlers hits theaters October 29.