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An Unsettling and Original Allegory for the Cycles of Abuse

Some of this year’s biggest horror movies have been projects like A Quiet Place Part II, Candyman, and Halloween Kills, and while the successes of these films could be debated, they all signify how the genre world is often dominated by revivals of beloved properties or continuations of successful series. When looking a little outside the mainstream genre films of the last few years, fans are quick to point out more unconventional takes on horror, highlighting films like Get Out, Midsommar, or The Lighthouse. With Scott Cooper’s Antlers, we’re given the best of both worlds, as the film delivers not only one of the best, original monsters of year, but also an allegory for the ways in which trauma and abuse can infect and persist long after the seeming threat has been neutralized.

In a small town on Oregon’s coast, teacher Julia (Keri Russell) is adjusting to life back home, moving in with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemmons) as a last resort. She notices her small-statured student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) showing signs of coping with abuse, a process she’s unfortunately all too familiar with. We soon learn that the struggles Lucas is facing go above and beyond the mortal realm, forcing the trio to confront both a literal and metaphorically monstrous threat.

Despite how varied monster movies have been over the years, there are ultimately only a handful of creatures that leave a lasting memory, some of which are reinterpreted and revived every few years to solidify their potential. Additionally, there are a number of famous monsters throughout folklore and mythology who have yet to earn a cinematic experience that they rightly deserve, as centuries’ worth of stories puts an insurmountable pressure in regards to honoring the built-in fascination with the beasts, making it too difficult to rise to the task. Thanks to Antlers, the First Nations legend of the Wendigo has been realized to its frightening potential, while also delivering audiences far more than cheap thrills.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t thrilling, superficial scares, as the fog-covered town and its surrounding forests offer up a number of effective sequences to truly terrify audiences. The beast, which spends much of its time in shadow, has a number of places to hide, allowing the times it emerges to truly shock the audience. Amplifying that intensity is the fact that there isn’t merely one monster with established rules or weaknesses that it must adhere to for the narrative, as Antlers features a number of threats with creepy and mysterious origins before the main beast emerges. It’s those unsettling and ambiguous details that truly allow the narrative to surprise you, as it feels as though nearly anything is possible at any given moment.

For centuries, the legend of the Wendigo emphasized an insatiable greed and selfishness, as stories of the beast often served as a warning to not consume more than necessary, which was truly a matter of life and death among communities throughout the history of North America. The creature also serves as a warning regarding cannibalism, deterring those who feel so desperate for food that they might turn towards their neighbor to sacrifice. It’s the themes of the creature that end up uniting Julia and Lucas, as they are both survivors of abuse.

As hinted at throughout the narrative, Julia is not only coping with abuse she suffered at the hands of a family member, but we’re also given glimpses of her attempts to overcome substance abuse. Lucas, on the other hand, hasn’t lived quite as long of a life and has been struggling with abuse of a more emotional variety, in addition to the drug-induced poverty he has to suffer through due to his meth-cooking father. These characters and the creature itself are examples of the phrase “hurt people hurt people,” as a key component of the Wendigo myth is that, the more it consumes, the hungrier it gets. The more pain it delivers, the more violent its next encounter might be. Both Julia and Lucas are hurt people, and while they might not be directly administering more abuse, their journeys end up bringing about more hurt to those they love. And while the history of Julia and Lucas’ abusers isn’t fully detailed, it’s fair to assume that someone had hurt them, with the cycle going back for quite some time. The history of the Wendigo and its neverending quest to feast means that, no matter how the monster was manifested, the more terror it causes, the less satisfied it is with its carnage, igniting a disastrous cycle.

Aiding the direction and performances is the score by Javier Navarrete, which adds a layered and haunting soundscape to the experience. Given that it’s set in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, there are notes that feel reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks, but also has hints of Mica Levi’s disjointing and erratic work from Under the Skin. The piano feels familiar and intentional, but it never feels comfortable or welcoming, instead heightening the unnerving tension not only of a monster lurking in the woods, but also of the monsters from our past that fail to stay behind us.

Originally set to hit theaters in early 2020, Antlers suffered a number of delays due to the COVID pandemic and The Walt Disney Company’s purchase of Fox Searchlight Pictures. The number of delays it suffered, in addition to the number of other films it would be competing with that had built-in followings, made Antlers feel as though it would be an underwhelming release that no one knew what to do with. Instead, the film ends up threading the needle between being a traditional monster movie and an unconventional allegory, giving us one of the best creature features in years.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Antlers hits theaters on October 29th.

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