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Film Reviews

Antlers

Published October 28, 2021
Keri Russell stars in the Revenge of the hat rack

After months at home sampling streaming menus Australia is ready to go back to the movies. In November the floodgates will open with the Sydney Film Festival, the Italian Film Festival and the British Film Festival. The most high-profile new releases will include the long-delayed James Bond flick, No Time to Die; the latest superhero extravaganza, The Eternals; and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. And that, as they say, is just for starters.

Before the deluge there’s one early release worth catching, but only if you’re up for some grim foreboding and gore. I know plenty of readers will never watch a horror movie, even one with superior artistic or dramatic credentials. But it’s worth emphasising the broadranging nature of the genre, incorporating everything from B-grade monster movies; the vampire sagas turned out by Hammer Studios; the violent and weirdly comical Italian giallos, and superior products such as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

I admit there are horror films that are merely sadistic and exploitative, made by people who seem to have missed their vocation as serial killers, but who needs to watch those?

Scott Cooper’s Antlers is not an all-time classic but neither is it an exercise in gratuitous carnage. It has some brutal moments, including one murder scene that will induce involuntary winces, but it’s a stylish, well-made feature with enough metaphors to offset the bloodshed.

Some of this must be attributed to producer, Guillermo del Toro, celebrated as a director of impressive fantasy-horror movies. It was del Toro who saw the potential in the tale and enlisted Cooper to direct.

The story unfolds in a small town in Oregon that sits in a wilderness scarred by large-scale coal mining. A small boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) wanders around the site of an abandoned mine while his father and a friend appear to be scavenging junk from a dark tunnel. It turns out that the two seedy-looking men are addicts and suppliers, and the mine has been their meth lab.

Lucas can hear a strange bellowing noise in the distance but for the duo in the tunnel that noise is the calling card of a malign, supernatural presence. Lucas’s father, Frank (Scott Haze), and his buddy, are not destined to see daylight safely.

Cut to the local school where teacher, Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), is intrigued by the introverted Lucas, who gets bullied by the other boys and produces reams of disturbing drawings. We soon find that Julia’s interest in Lucas has been provoked by her own childhood trauma of being molested by her father. Years after the old man’s death she has returned to face her demons, moving back into the family home where she now lives with her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), a local policeman.

The lead characters are well cast. Russell has an air of neurotic vulnerability and bitter obsession; Thomas is the frail, spindly child with a hidden fire in his belly (I couldn’t help thinking of the little boy holding a grenade in the famous Diane Arbus photo); while Plemons plays his usual stolid, four-square role, but often seems to be fraying at the edges.

Julia believes Lucas has all the signs of an abused child. She doesn’t know that he goes home every night to a dingy, isolated house in which his father and younger brother, Aiden (Sawyer Jones), are confined behind a door festooned with padlocks. One of Lucas’s chores is to find fresh meat that can be fed to the captives, particularly his father, who has become a savage, raging beast.

As this is a horror movie it’s inevitable someone will open that door and unleash the evil within. It’s pointless to argue that anybody in their right mind would flee and call the police. Nobody in a Hitchcock movie ever does the rational, sensible thing, otherwise there’d be no movie. It’s just as certain that what happens when the door is opened will be the most gruelling scene in Antlers.

The monster, in this instance, is readily identifiable as a Wendigo, the bogeyman of the North American Indians. In David D.Gilmore’s book, Monsters, there are many pages devoted to descriptions of the Wendigo and its exploits. It’s a nightmare for all occasions, voracious and “virtually indestructible”. The Wendigo has terrorised the tribes for as long as anyone can remember, and is still widely accepted as a fact rather than a myth.

Such a monster gives the special effects department a lot of leeway in fashioning a large, misshapen ghoul with a lavish outcrop of antlers. But like all movie monsters it’s a much scarier proposition when we know it only as an unseen menace lurking in the shadows.

Antlers gains substance from the development of the characters and personalities. It doesn’t take much to realise that for Julia the Wendigo is projection of her own damaged childhood. Only by killing the monster can she kill the father, even if it’s the monster that does all the killing.

The appearance of the Wendigo is linked to the desecration of the wilderness by mining companies, and the prospect of a new mine. Cooper gives us an eco-horror tale in which indigenous knowledge proves superior to mainstream scepticism; in which Nature rises up and takes its murderous revenge on disrespectful human beings. Because the Wendigo seems to propagate itself like a virus, incubating within the body of a host, we are made to think of COVID-19, which is also a mechanism for curtailing human ambition and population growth.

The idea that the monster grows within a body is probably lifted from the Alienmovies but it makes dramatic sense. For what is a movie monster other than a surrogate for the devils that lurk within our own psyches? The classic case is the invisible creature in Forbidden Planet (1956) that is finally revealed as being drawn from the minds of the ship’s crew, but it’s a template that might be applied to legions of ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other cinematic terrors.

With the world’s growing anxiety about climate change and newfound reverence for First Nations people, there are bound to be many more movies such as Antlers. We are presently in that bright moment when it’s possible to enjoy the relative freshness of the themes before they harden into clichés. When the big filmmakers have moved on there will always be plenty of drones ready to pick up the scraps.

 

 

Antlers

Directed by Scott Cooper

Written by Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, Scott Cooper, after the story ‘The Quiet Boy’, by Nick Antosca

Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Scott Haze, Warren Stokes, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Sawyer Jones, Cody Davis

USA/Mexico/Canada, rated MA 15+, 99 mins

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 October, 2021