Antlers review: A Smart yet Scary Supernatural

Director Scott Cooper combines with producer Guillermo del Toro to swap subtlety for scares

A whole forest full of horrors haunts Scott Cooper’s bleak Northwest fable Antlers, from economic depression and child abuse to full-blown flesh-eating stag monsters. Playing like a nasty Bruce Springsteen nightmare, classic native myths collide with blue-collar American social politics in this smart supernatural thriller with old-school bones.

Cooper, known for slow-drawl modern westerns like Crazy Heart, Out Of The Furnace and Hostiles, turns his hand to horror with help from producer Guillermo del Toro. Feeling like two halves of something both artists might make separately, Antlers isn’t always as inspired as it could be, but it’s still an original and effective horror drama with plenty to say.

Keri Russell (The Americans, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker) is Julia, a small-town schoolteacher worried about the weird kid in her class (Jeremy T. Thomas) who scribbles scary crayon monsters in his workbooks. Recently moved back in with her cop brother (the always-underused Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad and Fargo fame), she already has enough worries of her own – including a history of abuse that she’s trying to avoid thinking about. The town has plenty of issues too, with a closed mine driving up unemployment, depression, drug abuse and a general sense of despair that hangs over everyone like the damp weather.

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Things get supernatural when a couple of meth heads get gobbled up by something big/evil in an abandoned mineshaft, and Julia gets drawn into the mystery when she starts poking into the broken home life of the boy she’s teaching. Cooper spends a lot of time building up the suspense during the film’s first hour, but he invests even more into the real-world horrors that lurk among the rusted mine machinery – kicking dirt into a broken social system that lets child abuse and dangerous drug addiction carry on unchecked.

As the allegories slowly morph into more conventional movie monsters, Cooper leans on del Toro’s inspired eye for gnarly creature design as Antlers sprouts horns to tackle the folk myth of the Wendigo – a native cannibal forest spirit that’s deeply bound up in ideas of America’s violent history. Some sticky body horror scenes and fantastic practical creature effects make up for the cornier genre tropes wheeled out earlier on, but it’s hard not to feel like Cooper isn’t more comfortable when he’s filming people instead of puppets.

Not that he gets the balance wrong. Take away all the blood and you have the kind of film everyone expects Cooper to make – a beautifully shot, well-written social drama led by a fine cast. But by telling the story around a Halloween campfire and swapping subtlety for scares, he reaches deeper into the roots of the problems he’s trying to tackle – as well as giving us a cracking new movie monster to keep us out of the woods.