A lower key horror movie with some sparky moments, here’s our review of Scott Cooper’s new film, Antlers.

There are few more exciting names to see attached to a horror movie than that of Guillermo del Toro. Granted, in the case of Antlers his role is as a producer rather than an active participant behind the camera, but his name still lends credence and will tide us over until the release of Nightmare Alley. The film itself – helmed by Out Of The Furnace and Black Mass director Scott Cooper – is an occasionally brilliant, but muddled journey through North American folklore, anchored by some enjoyably grotesque gore and game performances.

Chief among those is Keri Russell, who does her best to bring a serious and believable edge to the role of schoolteacher Julia. She’s a survivor of childhood abuse and recently moved back to rural Oregon to live with her sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons at his most dependable). Julia has noticed something amiss with quiet, withdrawn pupil Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas), while Paul is soon forced to investigate a series of mysterious animal attacks which may or may not be connected to the reason Lucas is so secretive about his home life.

Antlers doesn’t really seem to know what it’s trying to say though. An opening series of titles proclaim that “Mother Earth has been pillaged” and suggest that a “malevolent spirit” has been unleashed, though the film which follows doesn’t do more than vaguely nod at an environmental message. Its abuse themes also don’t seem to tie into the central story at all and hints of Julia’s alcoholism come to nothing.

Cooper’s script, co-written with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca – upon whose short story the movie is based – is a loose and raggedy beast, crying out for a sense of focus.

But thankfully, the movie delivers on the horror front. Cooper’s films often benefit from an oppressive, grimy feel of rural hopelessness, and that assists with the gradual sense of foreboding in Antlers. The movie withholds its titular pointy things for a long time, but doesn’t scrimp on the bloodshed and the fear factor when the time comes to crank up the scares. There are some very impressive practical effects sequences, avoiding the CGI weightlessness which can often scupper less stylish works.

Saying that though, the prestige sheen of Antlers is as much a curse as it is a blessing. While the production values are slick and the scares impressive, there’s a shocking sense of po-faced humourless to the whole thing. Horror often works best when it understands the silliness of the genre in which it exists, while Antlers takes itself breathtakingly seriously. Plemons’ character remarks at one stage that a “fucking place smells like death”, without so much as a flicker of black humour. Without that sense of fun, lines like this land with a leaden thunk, regardless of the quality of the actors tasked with saying them.

The tone is evidently reaching for the rarefied air of the shudder-inducing term “elevated horror”, but it lacks the depth and allegory of movies like The Babadook and The Witch. Those movies use their eponymous supernatural threats as a jumping-off point to explore issues of grief and coming of age, while Antlers is a silly monster movie wearing the clothing of something more complex and multi-layered. Certainly, anybody sold by the big-name producer and expecting the sensitivity and humanism of del Toro’s best directorial efforts will be left wanting.

But Antlers delivers the thrills and spills expected of multiplex horror and offers some genuinely excellent creature design. Its grasp of the particular slice of American folklore it depicts seems a little iffy – and it’s a bit of a hoary old trope to bring in a Native American character to explain it, only for him to never be seen again – but provides the springboard for some satisfying grotesquerie. There’s one particular moment of gore which will be pleasantly familiar to anyone who saw the mostly forgotten and not especially great found footage movie The Pyramid from 2014.

And that’s ultimately what sticks with you about the movie. Yes, it’s very confused about what it’s trying to put forward as a message, and it doesn’t really seem to follow the rules it establishes about the central supernatural idea, but it delivers some gnarly horror moments and maintains an appropriately creepy atmosphere. Come for the possibility of a smart, scary adventure, but stay for the flayed ribcages and dangling flaps of skin. That’s what Halloween at the cinema is all about.

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