Remember Antlers? The Guillermo del Toro-produced horror disappeared down the pandemic black hole of last year after losing its original release date of April. All went quiet until a new date of February this year was mooted – and was duly scrapped. But, on its third attempt, it arrives this Friday, neatly timed for Hallowe’en and making sure that horror fans have a choice in cinemas at their favourite time of the year.
Director Scott Cooper’s trademark dark, brooding style envelops a story that attempts to mix indigenous legend with more contemporary family issues, but doesn’t delve deep enough into either. Or any of the other themes that raise their heads. In rural Oregon, teacher Julia (Keri Russell) is back in town and is soon concerned by one of the boys in her class. Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) looks under-nourished and exhausted, is deeply withdrawn and spends most of his lessons drawing nightmare pictures. Julia has her own nightmares too, the childhood abuse that eventually drove her away from home and her brother (Jesse Plemons), keeping her at a distance for 20 years. Determined not to let the little boy suffer the same fate, she decides to find out exactly what is going on at his house.
Cooper, we know, doesn’t do light (think Out Of The Furnace) so his relish for creating a foreboding, grubbily menacing atmosphere makes him near tailor-made for this genre. In truth, this is the strongest aspect of the film – with the exception of the performance from young Jeremy T Thomas, another in this year’s line of deeply impressive child actors – one which just about manages to overcome the plodding pacing. But actual, genuine scares are thin on the ground, as the film steadily wends its way towards a climax that contains little in the way of surprises.
The film’s opening puts native legend at the top of the list of its themes and, while it provides the monster at the centre of the narrative – the Wendigo – it doesn’t do much else. More noticeable is that First Nation characters are almost entirely absent throughout, with Graham Greene relegated to explaining the legend and otherwise just lingering in the background. If there’s meant to be something in here about disrespecting land belonging to an indigenous population, that message is completely lost. He’s not the only actor who deserves better: Jesse Plemons (superb in the forthcoming The Power Of The Dog) has little to do as the local sheriff other than be sceptical about native myths, and Keri Russell is never allowed to stray from being concerned and confused at the same time.
Lurking somewhere is the possibility of a genuinely frightening, thought-provoking film, but Cooper and fellow writer Henry Chaisson seem determined to stick to the “something nasty in the woodshed” trope at the expense of anything in the way of substance. It’s all about appearances and atmosphere, and those antlers of the title are frustratingly blunt.
Horror, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Walt Disney Productions | Cinemas, 29 October 2021|Dir. Scott Cooper | Jesse Plemons, Keri Russell, Jeremy T Thomas, Graham Greene, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan.