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CHILDREN OF THE HORN
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenplay: Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, Scott Cooper
Starring: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas
Review: RJ Bland
It feels as if grungy, gloomy horror flicks had their heyday in the early noughties – with films like Saw and Ring and Hostel offering up copious amounts of dinginess. In fact, it feels as if we have gone the other way completely. Horror films are much more likely to be bold and brash and colourful in the 2020s. It seems as if half the genre films that are released now have some form of neon in their promotional material. Part of it feels like a need to revel in the nostalgia of the 80s, but it also might just be that due to recent world events, a lot of us just aren't up for much in the way of further moroseness. Especially when we're trying to watch something to escape from the real life anxieties of covid and climate change and political unrest. Enter Scott Cooper's Antlers, a film that promises to offer up lashings of bleak eco-horror!
Julia (Keri Russell) has just moved back to the small Oregon town that she grew up in. She has bagged herself a job as a teacher at the local school and has also moved in with her brother (Jesse Plemons), the town's sheriff, who still resides at the family home. However it's far from a happy homecoming. The house holds some bad childhood memories and her relationship with her brother is a little strained too. She's also doing her best not to fall off the wagon. Things at work aren't any better – her students are mostly unreceptive or unresponsive. Poverty and drug abuse are a rising problem in the area but one child, Lucas, seems to be displaying particularly worrying symptoms. He's undernourished and withdrawn and when she begins to follow him to see where he lives and what his family life is like, she begins to suspect that he is being abused. Her brother and the school principal are somewhat dismissive but Julia is unable to let it go and persists in her private investigation but she soon finds that things are a lot more complicated – and dangerous – than she originally thought...
When a film is produced by Guillermo Del Toro, you expect two things. Firstly, it's going to have some fantastical creature design – the guy is obsessed with monsters after all. Well you can give that a big tick. The practical and digital effects in Antlers are top notch too, with the big bad feeling like some sort of cross between a zombie, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and that big creepy tree monster from the end of The Ritual. And secondly, that the film is probably going to have some vivid, vibrant fantasy elements. But as mentioned in the intro, Director Scott Cooper gives us a feature that is almost a mood in itself; from the looming landscape and washed out palette to the burnt out characters who populate it. Some will rally against the gloom, but if you like your horror bleak and nihilistic, then there's plenty here to bask (or wallow) in. There are some truly gory moments too.
Whilst the monster is imposing and abrasive, there is a subtlety to almost every other aspect of Antlers. Russell and Plemons are understated in the articulation of their relationship and their performances, whilst feeling rather downbeat, are still impressive. It also eschews a potentially maudlin story arc between Julia and Lucas and instead handles it in a much more realistic way. Julia's backstory gives her an added incentive to get to the bottom of what is going on with her student, but the focus on past abuse rather than any 'maternal' instinct (or loss of a child) means that it avoids some of the tropes associated with these types of stories. A special mention for Jeremy T. Thomas too. The script doesn't afford him much in the way of dialogue but it doesn't matter when you're capable of giving the viewer so much with your physical performance alone. He is a kid forced into a very adult situation but his vulnerability and fragility are vital in terms of raising the stakes later on.
Antlers does feel as if it has something else to say too. The problem is that it appears that it has quite a bit it wants to talk about but not in any great detail. Child abuse, trauma, America's meth problem, ecological degradation, mother nature addressing the balance, native American folklore. It's a rather scattergun approach and it all ends up feeling underdeveloped, rather than ambiguous. Horror films don't have to set out to make any societal or political points and that's absolutely fine. In fact, there are some features that feel as if they are merely a vehicle for that very purpose. However, Antlers throws up some ideas but never really lets them settle and by the end we're not entirely sure what we're supposed to take away.
The ponderous pacing won't suit everyone but about halfway through, something happens that opens up the story somewhat and some impetus is generated. The final act is unflinchingly tense in fact. Sure, the ending stretches plausibility a little but if you've accepted a big old horned beast running riot then you should be able to swallow it.
Antlers is a grim, atmospheric folk horror with a fantastic central monster. It's a bit messy in terms of its underlying themes but some impressive central performances mean that it's more of an oversight than a fatal flaw.
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