‘Antlers’ Is the Kind of Creature Feature That Works Best as a Midnight Escape

Late October is the perfect time to forgive a bare movie when the whole plot revolves around a mythical, deer-like creature which doesn’t just eat its victims, but bursts forth out of them. “Antlers” is that kind of midnight movie that combines the absurd with the mythical, barely taking time to explain why any of it should make sense. Fox Searchlight knew what they were doing when they tagged this for a Halloween weekend release. This is the time of the season when audiences are primed for this kind of guilty pleasure. And a guilty pleasure it is. What saves it is that the filmmakers do make an effort at atmosphere and tone, even when the frights go off the rails.

As all horror fans know, small town America is where monsters roam. “Antlers” takes place in rural Oregon, where filters always make it seem like an overcast day. Economically it definitely feels that way for the residents, who endure the bite of poverty with local industries withering away. A young boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) comes face to face with an unknown horror while watching his father, Frank (Scott Haze) and brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) attacked one night by an entity in a mining tunnel while engaging in illegal contraband. At school Lucas is quiet, too quiet, which catches the attention of his teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), who has her own demons and lives with her sheriff brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons). Once Julia begins investigating Lucas’s home life, and why his father is apparently missing, she steps into a confrontation with a monstrous force that could devour everyone, literally.

“Antlers” is the latest small horror offering produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who likes to take time from his own, larger opuses to give fellow genre directors a boost with films like “Mama” and “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” This one feels about the same in that it showcases director Scott Cooper’s ability to craft some eerie images and build atmosphere. The screenplay by Nick Antosca and Cooper is based on a short story by Antosca, “The Quiet Boy,” which taps into a root defined by authors like Stephen King. Like King’s best short fiction, the spooks in “Antlers” take a back seat to the characters, which are the best parts of the movie. They inhabit the usual mechanics of the plot but aren’t completely cardboard cutouts. Julia is the kind teacher that comes in to try and save the obviously perturbed Lucas, but she has her own traumas that are slowly revealed, and they are quite horrifying. Jeremy T. Thomas is an excellent young actor who gives Lucas lots of empathy and hints of darkness. Their world would be enough of a challenge without supernatural occurrences. In another nod to King, “Antlers” keeps a unique horror tradition going in that it’s one of the few remaining genres that strives to say something about working class America. Lucas’s father may be a criminal, but he’s driven to crime out of desperation and destitution, straight into the monster hiding in the tunnel.

The rest of “Antlers” may work best for the midnight movie crowd, who don’t demand too much exposition for their fun. Like some of Del Toro’s other productions, this one can get so caught up in the premise of its monster that it forgets things like proper logic or a coherent explanation. Other themes are thrown in like the rape of the environment and how we have brushed aside Native American culture. The antlered beast that is revealed later in delightfully gruesome fashion is linked to a Native American myth, yet there are no indigenous characters in this movie aside from the great Graham Greene, who drops in for one scene as the required indigenous person who needs to explain to the white characters what they’re fighting, then disappears. Cooper at least uses lots of excellent practical effects for the creature moments, giving the monster an organic feel too much CGI would have ruined. Yet sometimes smaller scares are more effective and the scenes inside Lucas’s house, where his brother and father writhe in possessed, pale torment, are much more disturbing than the antlers later on.

“Antlers” might be too dark for some viewers. It barely features any humor. But it’s efficiently made and for a Halloween outing certainly has more style than even the recent “Halloween Kills.” At its best it gets under your skin even if this kind of thriller has been done better before. The last 10 minutes are particularly harrowing, which is better than being completely boring. Above all, it leaves us looking forward to what a director like Cooper comes up with next because one gets the sure feeling he has much more gripping terrors up his sleeve.

Antlers” releases Oct. 29 in select theaters.