Shot in fall 2018 and set to release in April 2020 - a date that is sure to make anyone cringe in uncomfortable remembrance - "Antlers" is finally reaching audiences, but the delay may not make the heart grow fonder. Even with visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro producing, this horror flick uses a mythological creature from indigenous folklore to make a statement about the socio-economic state of the country. Political horror has found a wider audience over the years, particularly since Jordan Peele found his unique, alluring voice, but "Antlers" focuses too much on the morose, giving audiences no break as the film only gets darker, weirder and farther down a well of endless despair.
Normally, a film's desolation and the wretchedness of its imagery would only delight my twisted sensibilities. Horror can be beautiful and complex, an under-appreciated medium for making important social commentary. But this film is like a depressing blanket that you can't push off. There is no levity, even with a throwaway line of dialogue or flirty cut shot. It's as serious as they get. As the action progresses, so does the nagging feeling that there is no magic holy water or silver bullet that can stop this runaway monster, both the film's physical villain and the overarching metaphor that is perhaps the greater threat to the characters, a covert message about the risks of a deteriorating society.
It is fitting that the film is set in a forgotten, blue collar mining town haunted by poverty and terrorized by overdoses. That fictional town of Cispus Falls, Oregon is a place full of haunting memories for Julia Meadows (Keri Russell). A middle school teacher, she has returned to her hometown after many years away, running from a time and a place and a person that no longer exists. She passes the liquor section of the market with visible trepidation, and her relationship with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemmons), the town sheriff, is rife with their unspoken past.
"Abuse" is vaguely alluded to often. Julia's trauma stems from the general "abuse" her father inflicted upon her. It seems to be primarily emotional, possibly sexual, but nothing is firm. Flashbacks show Julia hiding under the stairs or screaming as she finds her father naked on the bed. She talks about his control over her, and the demands he would make. Julia is visibly still in recovery from the trauma and an outspoken advocate for fighting childhood abuse. Which is why Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) catches her eye. Smaller than most middle schoolers, he is sullen and silent with often puffy, tired eyes. What's happening at home isn't just abuse; it's a crisis of both epidemic and fairy-tale proportions.
Based on a short story "The Quiet Boy" written Nick Antosca who helped adapt it into script, the film features an ancient antagonist, the wendigo, a spirit that roams the forest looking for a host. Details on the wendigo vary greatly, and there are many versions of the same creature. It supposedly turns a human insatiably hungry for meat, preferring to eat carnivorously, in order to transform into its true form, a giant, antlered humanoid beast hybrid. del Toro and co-writer-director Scott Cooper have room to grow the creature at their discretion, and the visual effects are detailed and disturbingly visceral.
Lucas' father Frank (Scott Haze) has found himself infected in such a way after running into a wendigo spirit in the mines where he illegally set up his drug lab. He locks himself in the attic of their home as the metamorphosis begins, characterized by howling in hungry and feasting luxuriously on the dead carcasses that Lucas can provide.
However, it is the drugs that have done the most damage on the town, not a mythical beast. The allegory is laid heavily and intrinsically into the story. Lucas would have been traumatized irrevocably in either outcome: a father who continued down the road of drug sales (and, we assume, drug use), or a father who has fallen victim to a wendigo, tyrannizing Lucas and his little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones). One brother will also lose his life to the wendigo, a possible metaphor for the unseen casualties of addiction.
Julia gets on that high horse, leading the charge to uncover what is happening at the Weaver house and to save Lucas from a situation she knows all too well. Russell is engaging and sympathetic as Julia, which makes the imperfections and vague points of the film a little more tolerable. The child actor Thomas also give incredibly affecting performance that elevates the film as a whole, drawing us into his story.
Like a spirit that lives and breeds from decay, abuse is a nearly impossible fiend to vanquish, a pessimistic outlook for a film that sinks into this gloomy, cynical message. We both see and feel the mood that Cooper establishes throughout the film like one might feel a pimple. It broods ominously, festering in horror and torture that is predominantly out of sight until it erupts with a small pop. Poof, it's gone... until another one forms elsewhere and the cycle continues. Picking this one will be painful and messy, and a lesson on history repeating itself.
"Antlers" is in theaters now.