To describe Antlers as ‘dark’ would be something of an understatement.
The tone of this powerful little eco-horror is jet black with a side order of obsidian. Directed by Scott Cooper and co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a bleak tale, an allegory that carries its twin themes – the desecration of nature and the destructive power of poverty – in plain view. The story is by no means subtle and it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – but to be fair, that’s the last thing it’s trying to be.
In an abandoned coal mine, somewhere in the wilds of Oregon, Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) is running a covert meth operation. His home town is broken beyond repair, the nearby mountains plundered of their ‘black gold,’ and now he’s getting by the only way he knows how. But his youngest son, Aiden (Sawyer Jones), has an unfortunate habit of sticking his nose into things – and, when Frank and an employee encounter something supernatural down in the darkness, Aiden inevitably goes to investigate.
Some time later, high school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is struggling to keep her life together. She’s failing to bond with the kids in her classes, she can’t seem to visit the local liquor store without casting yearning glances at the bottles of spirits – and she’s troubled by horrors from her childhood. She is currently living with her brother, the town sheriff, Paul (Jesse Plemons), and they share a past that they’d clearly rather forget. Perhaps that’s why Julia is so drawn to the plight of Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), who sits silently at his school desk, drawing a series of very disturbing pictures. But what has happened to his father and his younger brother? And what exactly is he keeping locked up in the attic of the family home?
It would be too much of a spoiler to tell you more about the story. Suffice to say that the creature that the Weavers have unwittingly unleashed is parasitic in nature and has a habit of vacating its hosts in a very messy manner. But while the story goes to some fantastic places, the grubby reality of the setting keeps everything anchored. The squalid, dying town is a realistic place and its inhabitants are believable enough to encourage us to follow them deep into the realms of the unreal.
Those who flinch from body horror should be warned there are visceral scenes here. We all know that teachers have a tough time, but the events endured by school principal, Miss Booth (Amy Madigan), must qualify as an all time low. Cooper keeps offering tantalising glimpses of something unspeakable lurking in the shadows and his ‘less-is-more’ approach consequently ramps up the fear factor. It’s only towards the end of the film, when we finally see the creature in more detail, that the tension dissipates somewhat… but by then, the director’s work is done and we’ve well and truly been put through the mill.
Antlers is a an accomplished creature feature, that generates an atmosphere of mounting dread for most of its duration. Grim and immersive, it’s eminently suitable for spooky autumn viewing, but we warned, the central premise is not for the faint-hearted.