“and all they wanted to do was go to town and eat people”
If there is one widely-agreed-upon consensus complaint about Antlers, a movie that feels like it’s been sitting in the can waiting to come out for a decade now, it’s that the film bites off more than it can chew, at least where its themes are concerned. That’s based on skimming a bunch of Letterboxd reviews, anyway, and the “Critics Consensus” at Rotten Tomatoes seems to agree.
Certainly, it’s the most obvious complaint to lodge. Antlers is a flick that takes a bite out of at least a half-dozen major themes, and never really does much of anything with any of them. Among the many subjects that the film seems to want to tackle are capitalism’s exploitation of the environment, the role and treatment of indigenous populations in the United States, the opioid crisis, and the way that small, dying towns act as hotbeds of child abuse because there simply aren’t enough good resources available to help the kids – none of which were substantially present in Nick Antosca’s original story.
And perhaps it’s just because a lot of horror product lately has been too specifically didactic in its messaging – not merely offering up themes, but spelling them out perhaps a little too painstakingly at times – that it feels kinda nice to have a flick just skip a stone across a whole lake full of different preoccupations, without ever really digging deep into any of them.
It isn’t as if those themes aren’t there, taking up space in the heavy shadows and rainy, autumnal exteriors of director Scott Cooper’s dreary Oregon police procedural-cum-creature feature. It’s just that the film never really does much with any of them, relying instead on character beats, incredibly grisly dead bodies, and monster moments to carry all of the weight. And, in their defense, they mostly do.
At a lean 99 minutes, Antlers – like the story it’s adapted from – is preoccupied, first and foremost, with its horror creature central premise, despite all of the film’s halfhearted grasping at other thematic concerns. It’s tempting to call the picture a slow burn, but it isn’t exactly. The wendigo stuff is happening from pretty much the first frame. It’s just that it takes time to deliver the big monster moments that we’re expecting.
I’ve seen people complain about this pacing, but I had no problem with it. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for damp portraits of small towns slowly dying while people tromp through sodden leaves around crime scenes, and this has plenty of that.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t talk about the monster. I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler to say that this is a wendigo picture. The trailers have made that pretty abundantly clear and, even if they didn’t, the movie does in short order. And the wendigo, in this case, is not an excuse to just have the monster look like a person who eats people. By the end, it’s a full-blown monster, as big and gnarly as any in recent memory, though it does take a while to get there.
In the meantime, we get plenty of those creepy, gory kids’ drawings that you see in the trailer, and by the time the monster is revealed in all its glory, it should probably come as no surprise that it’s a very solid creature, since it was designed by Guy Davis. And while the reveal doesn’t last long, it’s also not just a hand or some horns and some shadow. You get to see the whole monster, and it is a monster indeed.
I read Nick Antosca’s story, “The Quiet Boy,” only after having seen the film, and I’m glad I did it in that order. The story is less ambitious even than the movie, and the two are an interesting study in contrasts – good examples, each, of what both prose and film are capable of that the other can’t pull off as well. But the monster on the page is maybe even weirder than the one in the film, so I’m glad that I wasn’t too let down.
It may be a bit odd to praise a movie for not being more ambitious – especially when I already spent a few paragraphs describing how many different themes it seems to cram into its mouth – but in some ways the greatest strength that Antlers has going for it is how limited it keeps the scope. It has only a handful of characters, and ultimately tackles a very small, very bleak story.
By committing all of its resources to those few beats, it may feel like Lucas when he’s staring into the ice cream parlor at times, but ultimately, it knows how to deliver a satisfying – if simple – meal, and do it well. There are much worse things.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.