The wendigo – a cannibalistic spirit that haunts the folk beliefs of several Native American tribes and First Nations in the Algonquian language group – has loosely inspired a handful of horror films over the years, almost all of them quite crummy. The exception is Antonia Bird’s deliciously nasty and very gory black comedy Ravenous (1999), which baffled many contemporary viewers but has since developed a robust cult following. It would be foolhardy for any new film to attempt the tone- and genre-twisting acrobatics that made Bird’s feature such a distinctive beast, so it’s probably for that best that director Scott Cooper follows a completely different route for his take on the wendigo legend.
Antlers is a creature feature at heart, but one that’s suffused with the same relentlessly grim, dying-town atmosphere that dominated the director’s 2013 thriller Out of the Furnace. With its dreary, drizzly ambience and (mostly) old-school practical creature effects, Antlers bears an uncanny resemblance to a standalone, monster-of-the-week episode of The X-Files (1993-2018), albeit one stretched out from 45 to 99 minutes. It certainly owes more to Chris Carter’s landmark series than it does to any real-world Indigenous myths. Cooper’s film – co-written with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca from the latter’s 2019 short story, “The Quiet Boy” – doesn’t foreground the motifs of winter or taboo-breaking as strongly as most films inspired by the wendigo legend. In fact, Antlers closely resembles a classic werewolf story in terms of its structure and plot beats, which is fitting, in a way, given that this is the filter through which non-Native storytellers have often approached this particular folkloric monster.
Relocating Antosca’s story from rural West Virginia (not Algonquian country) to rural Oregon (very much not Algonquian country), Antlers is centered on 12-year-old Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), the son of a widowed local reprobate named Frank (Scott Haze). One day Lucas tags along while his father and an accomplice pack up a meth-cooking lab they had been concealing deep in an abandoned mine. While Lucas is tarrying above ground, the two men are viciously attacked by some unseen but clearly inhuman assailant deep in the mine's dark, winding corridors. Fast-forward a few weeks: While Frank evidently survived his encounter, it has changed him, and not for the better. His hair is falling out, his breath is ragged, and he growls and prowls about like a starving beast. Furthermore, whatever malady infected Frank has since spread to his younger son, Lucas’ 7-year-old brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones). Lucas has managed to confine both his father and little brother to the attic of their remote, ramshackle farmhouse, periodically bringing them carrion to consume and doing his best to keep up a façade of normalcy at school.
In the latter tasks he fails, for his teacher Julia (Keri Russell) senses that the already-withdrawn boy is deeply troubled of late. (Consistent with most horror films, it is the disturbing drawings that Lucas scribbles in his notebook that provide the most conspicuous clue that Something Is Not Right.) Julia knows a disturbed kid when she sees one, as she is still wrestling with her own demons. Having fled her emotionally and physically abusive household as a teenager, she has recently returned to the area following her father’s death. She currently lives with her younger brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), now the local sheriff, in the very house where she was victimized. Julia also has a latent drinking problem, a trait that the film conveys almost entirely through the glassy, lingering looks that Russell directs at the liquor bottles while waiting in line at the corner store.
Antlers is at its best when it trusts its lead performers enough to use a light touch in this way, allowing heavy hitters like Russell, Plemons, and Graham Greene – who plays Paul’s retired predecessor – to convey the story’s essentials. It’s not necessary for Julia to clumsily declare that she strongly identifies with Lucas. It’s enough for the film to simply observe Russell as she investigates the boy’s obvious emotional distress with an unsettling degree of haunted fervor. She confides in him regarding her own rocky home life, bribes him with ice cream and new clothes, and eventually follows him home – where she hears some very disturbing noises coming from upstairs. Antlers suffers in those moments when it shudders to a halt to effortfully walk the viewer through points that it could have merely implied or alluded to. Eventually, there is an obligatory scene where Graham’s character, Warren, provides the CliffsNotes version of the wendigo myth, and it rankles as much for its blatant expository function as it does for its cinematic triteness.
Despite the sturdy emotional handholds that Russell’s performance provides, Cooper’s film primarily lives and dies by its doom-choked atmosphere. Filmed in British Columbia, Antlers has an intensely forlorn sensibility that is reinforced by its eerie environments: misty forests, dank houses, and the rusting ruins of a long-vanished industrial prosperity. Nothing looks new, and the whole film has vibe that is somehow both primordial and apocalyptic. The radio crackles with news of environmental blight, locals shuffle in line outside a detox center, and Paul speaks of the eviction duties that are wearing down whatever slim enthusiasm he once harbored for law enforcement.
Like most horror films with a seed of Indigenous folklore at its heart, Antlers unfortunately tends to treat Native culture as a vanished, long-buried thing. There are, to be sure, subtle references here and there to America’s genocidal history. Julia summarizes the moral of the Goldilocks story to her students – almost all of them White – as, “Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you.” A railroad spike, that talisman of Manifest Destiny, pointedly serves as a lock keeping the malign forces imprisoned in Lucas’ attic. It’s not exactly The Shining (1980) in terms of anti-colonial subtext, but there’s enough there to both intrigue and frustrate. The film’s shallow, practically glancing treatment of Native culture might have been more bothersome if the setting’s White civilization didn’t also feel like it was sliding towards extinction. Ultimately, the film’s horror feels Lovecraftian rather than gothic: more focused on the miserable futility of our species’ endeavors than on traditional notions of sin and vengeance.
While its plot is frequently predictable, Antlers generally turns this to its advantage, creating a nerve-twisting atmosphere of terrible fatalism that permeates each thriller sequence. It’s obvious, for example, that the principal from Lucas’ school (Amy Madigan) is going to meet a grisly fate from the moment that she starts poking around his seemingly abandoned house. Instead of teasing the viewer with the slim possibility that she might make it out alive, Cooper turns her fumbling sleuthing into an oblivious, agonizing stroll into certain doom. This strategy also ends up working against the film, however, as Antlers ultimately feels like a story that only requires about half the running time it was allotted. An inescapable itchiness starts to creep into virtually every scene around the second act, a restless sensation that cannot be alleviated by gnarly nods to genre classics like My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Thing (1982), and Hellraiser (1987). Antlers works as a straightforward dose of Halloween-season creepiness, but it might have been better if had been more ruthlessly lean-and-mean – or more artistically and thematically ambitious.
Antlers opens in select theaters on Oct. 29.