My Piece: Antlers (2021)

One of my biggest horror sweet spots has always been creatures with antlers. I’ve addressed this in previous reviews, my podcast Atomic Radio, and have written almost all of my published horror stories thus far to include this loose concept. Another closely-related sweet spot is just skinwalkers and wendigos overall, mythological concepts that have scarcely been explored on the silver screen, and even more scarcely been worth the watch.

Ravenous (1999) is a great film overall, but also focuses directly on the wendigo myth in a fairly tasteful way. (Pun unintended. I legitimately wrote that without realizing.) Beyond that, I have yet to find a horror film that has approached these ideas and executed them satisfyingly. So of course once I heard that a wendigo horror film was being released this year, and was literally called Antlers, I was immediately intrigued.

Antlers (2021) is a small-town horror film written and directed by Scott Cooper, who also directed Black Mass (2015). Starring Keri Russell and Jesse Plemmons, the premise of the film is that a deadbeat father in Oregon is attacked by a creature while tending to his meth lab within an abandoned mine. Barely surviving the encounter, he returns home with his child, and rapidly succumbs to a debilitating lust for flesh, forcing his eldest son to adapt and tame the beast within for as long as he can. As the son displays considerable signs of abuse, his new teacher grows concerned, and begins to piece together the hidden truth.

The film is immediately quite bleak, color graded to a degree of almost looking a little muddy, but not offensively so. There are a multitude of pretty damn exceptional shots throughout, but they’re frequently overwhelmed by amateur exceptions and underdeveloped pacing. The cinematography overall ranges from quite notable to surprisingly cheap, some scenes shot beautifully and some just seemingly without direction.

I found the score to be rather distracting in its timid lack of unique execution, playing far too often and with far too many violins in my opinion. I’ve gotten to the point where a horror score including violins is nigh immediately a negative, honestly. There are some more operatic tones that could work a little bit better than others, but overall it felt incredibly amateur and comparable to every other DVD horror film on the shelf.

The performances are pretty decent overall, Keri Russell and Jesse Plemmons seem to play off each other reasonably well at times with a convincing sibling dynamic, albeit there are exceptions as well. Russell does a good job of displaying muted emotions in scenes too.

The protagonist child, played by Jeremy T. Thomas, does a surprisingly pleasant job as a traumatized son struggling to keep the remnants of his family together. His performance isn’t astounding overall, but there are definitely exceptional moments, and he plays his role with convincing authenticity for the most part.

I will say that the deadbeat father’s performance does lack in many instances, though I would attribute this more so to poorly-directed choreography than a lack of tangible talent. His execution in a particular scene comes off as improvised and loose, as though he’s trying to figure out what would look best as he’s going along.

The script is a conflictingly mixed bag. There are adequately disturbing themes presented, and the overall concept is pretty intriguing at face value. However, as I mentioned, there is a considerable lack of development in far too many areas to let go. There is a scene where a coroner examines the first kill of the creature that feels very sloppy and underwhelming, with unconvincing dialogue between the characters and a jarring sense of pacing for what would otherwise be an important moment in the story.

There is an abundance of cliches, from cringeworthy bullying tropes to a constant stream of spooky child drawings, children staring creepily at adults for no real reason beyond effect, etc.

Not to mention there are components of the plot that simply don’t make sense. As a courtesy, this is a spoiler warning for scenes toward the end of the film, so if you still retain interest in viewing it, I would recommend doing so now before continuing.

In the ending scene of the film, Keri Russell and Jesse Plemmons discuss adopting the protagonist child after their horrific trials, Plemmons having been gored by the wendigo and Russell having had to commit an atrocity. Plemmons begins coughing as Russell and the child walk back to their car, while he assures them that he is fine despite him coughing up blood. It’s implied that he is now going to be possessed by the wendigo, and then we cut to credits.

This makes no fucking sense. In an earlier scene, Russell and Plemmons approach the retired Native American sheriff about the events of the film, and he informs them of the legend of the wendigo, explaining that it is a spirit that is loosened when a person commits cannibalism, possessing them and gaining power through its carnivorous hunger. At no point in the film is Plemmons presented consuming human meat, and in turn could not be subject to wendigo possession.

For that matter, the deadbeat father is not shown to be eating human meat until later in the film, far after his possession. It could be argued that it’s an internal infection passed on from being gored by the wendigo, which would have affected the father in the cave whilst he’s being attacked and Plemmons being attacked in his shed. But if this is the case, why bother including the prerequisite for cannibalism in the film to begin with? Why solidify that as a part of the lore if you’re not going to stand by it anyway? Is it to have a stupid twist that means nothing at the end? Because I bet it is.

Moving on, the sound design is actually quite remarkable. I’ve expressed disdain for horror creatures emitting screeching noises in the past, but Antlers takes these sounds far more seriously than most. The screaming of the wendigo is very authentically natural and animalistic, reminding me of noises I’ve heard from foxes, mountain lions, etc. It is mastered and executed very exceptionally, which I never thought I’d praise.

Production and effects are quite good as well, with settings and props being very acceptable all around. The effects of the wendigo are fairly decent, I didn’t find myself distracted by it in any manner really, though it certainly wasn’t aided by a barrage of poor cinematography.

In closing, Antlers is an interesting attempt at finally making a decent wendigo horror film, and perhaps if you watch it you’ll consider it to be a successful one at that. Personally, I found it to be more of a boat that hasn’t sunk yet, but struggles to stay afloat. It’s a list of engaging ideas that just don’t quite hit the mark, and too many mistakes to ignore. I do respect its intentions, but if I had to grade the film, I would have to give it a 6/10.

It will not be remaining in my library.

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