Over the past two decades, American horror has often fallen into three categories: the spooky paranormal, the bloody slashers, and the zombie flick. All three are tried and tested sub-genre successes to make money from, but returning to these creative wells over and over again begins to drain them. It’s confounding that the wealth of Americana folklore that’s built into the U.S.’s history has been hardly touched by many filmmakers, despite the plethora of monsters and creatures to pull from. Skin-walkers, Moth Men, Big Feet, not to mention the ever-expansive catalogue of creepy-pastas written by the internet. However, we seem to finally be drinking from the bountiful water of this well through the minds of Nick Antosca and Scott Cooper.

This frightening Americana fable comes from Antosca’s short story ‘The Quiet Boy’, adapted into its feature-length counterpart ‘Antlers’ by Cooper – Keri Russell’s Julia moves back to her childhood home, in an isolated mountain town in Oregon, one of the regions known best for its toe-curling woodland tales. Returning to the house means returning to not only childhood trauma but Paul (Jesse Plemons), the brother she left behind. On the other side of town, there’s ghoulishly-malnourished Lucas Weaver, played by Jeremy T. Thomas, another stellar child star to add to 2021s collection. He’s hiding a big secret, hinted at through the film’s opening with the mysterious disappearance of his father – despite Lucas’s child-like appearance, he performs a startlingly adult lifestyle and routine. Once Julia and Lucas meet, everything begins to unravel for both of them.

There’s an undercurrent of trauma that powers everything that occurs in Antlers, both on an individual and collective level. 2021 has seen a rise in what could be labelled the ‘eco-horror’, with Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth and Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia, and Antlers is no different. The town feels Stephen King-esque, draped in dense, murky fog-clouds, where even the brightest siren lights barely cut through. It’s reminiscent of Silent Hill in some respects, particularly with Cooper’s close marriage of thematic resonance to his haunting scenery. Radio broadcasts hint at mountain-top pumping, whilst town-miners excavate beneath it – with Antlers being so entangled in Native American folklore, in this case, the iconic Wendigo, it’s hard to miss the subtle commentary on modern America’s own monstrous savagery on the natural landscape. Perhaps the monster that preys on the town is nature’s defence mechanism against a man-made raping of the land. What’s evident is that the Wendigo itself is more than just a monster – Cooper and Henry Chaisson’s script seems too intelligently designed for it to be reduced to that.

To Julia, Paul, and Lucas, the wendigo can be seen as a literal manifestation of the monstrous nature of their trauma come to life. Julia’s escape from the town creates a cyclical narrative, forced to return and confront the evil present, as she violently collides with the Wendigo’s path. The nature of the Wendigo itself evokes similar connotations to trauma – both have the ability to possess individuals, consuming them entirely and leaving them hollow. Cooper reveals this hollowing through some disturbingly real body horror, bodies exploded with thousands of bones splintering into many directions – jaws hideously unhinged, singed to the bone. Typically, Lucas’ father would be depicted as bad through and through, Antlers subverts the typical ‘bad father’ trope, instead depicting him as a morally corrupt man, but a devoted and dependable father. Instead, the trauma Lucas must go through is a premature growth to adulthood, forced to keep the secret of his father’s encounter with the Wendigo. Thomas’ performance grips you with a peculiar fascination, especially enraptured by the physicality he depicts Lucas with – it’s like watching a little ghoul boy running around, attempting to keep the dark, festering underbelly of the town from being unleashed on its residents.

The metaphors that Antlers sets up with its relational connection between the Wendigo and the trio’s trauma require a full commitment, lest they be undermined by sudden salvation in the film’s crescendo. Antlers seems to pose the question of ‘can trauma truly be defeated?’ or is it something you’re forced to reckon with for the rest of your life? To easily vanquish the Wendigo would potentially reflect a similar easiness to the overcoming of trauma, thereby undercutting the raw, monstrous sentimentality Cooper depicts it with. Instead, Cooper makes some bold choices with how he chooses to end Antlers, in order to stay true to his messaging, and it’s commendable. It feels different to a typical Hollywood ending, where all is okay, or all is lost – instead, it is hopelessly ambiguous to a number of avenues. It feels less of an ending, and more like the dawn from a particularly dark emotional episode – but there’s more to come, the fight is not through.

Antlers is currently available to watch in UK cinemas nationwide.

 

By Sab Astley

Lover of all things horrifying, dark and satirical - The Rocky Horror Picture Show being one of my favorites makes sense there.

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