It’s rare to see prominent directors embrace horror, sans apology.
Sure, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” and Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” were glorious exceptions, but most horror films feature lesser-known directors cutting their teeth in Hollywood.
So seeing Scott Cooper’s name attached to “Antlers” offers a quick, undeniable thrill. What could the auteur behind “Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass” and “Hostiles” bring to the genre? Turns out even celebrated directors sometimes lack the intangibles to craft first-rate horror.
Keri Russell stars as Julia, an elementary school teacher in a dreary Oregon town. Unemployment is up. So, too, is meth amphetamine use. Both emerge as characters in the film, particularly in the early moments.
Russell’s character looks like she has it all together despite those trends, especially while keeping her pre-teen charges in check.
Turns out her past is as dreary as her hometown.
She’s understandably drawn to one student, a bullied lad preoccupied with something far more sinister. Young Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas, excellent) has his own secrets, one teased in the film’s creepy opening. The lad’s family tree holds horrors tied to Native American lore, a crumbling planet or something else the movie name checks briefly but has little interest in developing.
That’s a problem, especially since “Antlers” checks plenty of genre boxes off in short order but rarely feels frightening, let alone important.
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Like the best indie fare, the movie asks audiences to tease out certain subplots. Other times, we’re practically hit over the head with a theme or subtext. That duality doesn’t help “Antlers,” nor does the addition of head-scratching developments typically seen in cheap horror fare.
A first class horror entry shouldn’t inspire eye rolls from key characters, including one played by Amy Madigan as a school official.
“Antlers” doesn’t skimp on the genre goodies, though. We’re treated to a soupy blend of twisted flesh and bone, the kind you might find in a “Texas Chainsaw” offshoot. Cooper’s camera captures it all.
Russell and young Thomas click as teacher and student, the actress letting us sense how her character’s bruised past makes her attempts to reach the child so powerful, and necessary.
The most interesting, but still under-cooked, element is the bond between Julia and her brother, a small town cop played by the great Jesse Plemons. It’s likely a few of their scenes got left behind the editing bay, making a longer, Director’s Cut a Blu-ray possibility.
Then again, Plemons is luckier than sturdy character actor Graham Greene, given the “Exposition Teller” assignment.
Plenty of movie showcase the bravery of moms in duress. One of many reasons the “Quiet Place” franchise rocks is how it reveals maternal love at its most extreme. Here, Julia’s transformation into a warrior is, to be blunt, unbelievable.
It turns the third act confrontation into a silly, not sublime, affair.
That shift leaves us wondering why Cooper, and his talented team, bothered telling this story, this way.
HiT or Miss: “Antlers” bears a powerful pedigree, but it’s ultimately a mediocre genre film with gore galore.