“Antlers” opens with a great scene: a young boy waiting for his dad in a pickup outside an abandoned mine in the Pacific Northwest. His dad has teamed up with a friend to salvage materials, and the mine is dark and scary. The dad, played by Scott Haze, uses a red flare to find his way through the dark.
It’s an eerie opening, especially when the men begin to hear strange noises. We don’t see exactly what happens, but it’s clear that whatever is making the noises is bad news.
Meanwhile, a middle-school teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), notices that one of her students seems to be emotionally distressed. He sits quietly at his desk and draws photos of a monster, with bold black and red strokes. His name is Lucas Weaver, and he’s played by Jeremy T. Thomas, a wiry, pale kid.
Julia sees the drawings as a cry for help, and she recognizes abuse when she sees it, because she suffered abuse as a child from her father. In fact, she has just returned to her Oregon hometown after 15 years of living in California, in part to make peace with her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), who’s the town sheriff.
We soon learn that Lucas is living in horrific conditions: That his dad — the one who entered the mine — has locked himself and his other son in a room, with bolts on the door that can only be opened by Lucas. He dad makes wild noises, and Lucas occasionally delivers dead carcasses to the room for his dad and brother to devour.
Fans of the horror genre will recognize the formula that director Scott Cooper is using. The father has been bitten by a monster and is turning into one himself. The details, however, make this tale more interesting than you might expect.
As mangled bodies begin to be found in the woods, Julia and Paul start debating what could be happening — and whether Lucas is involved somehow.
Meanwhile, Paul turns to the town’s retired sheriff, played by Graham Greene, to see whether he has any ideas on what might be killing folks. When he sees the drawings done by Lucas, he thinks he knows. It’s the Wendigo, he says, a deer-like creature and evil spirit in the mythology of the Native American Algonquin tribes.
At this point, some of you will probably roll your eyes. But Cooper teamed up with producer Guillermo del Toro to craft the monster as close to the Indian legend as possible.
In designing the monster, del Toro and Cooper enlisted art-department collaborator Guy Davis, who worked with del Toro on “The Shape of Water” and “Pacific Rim.”
In press notes, del Toro says he wanted the Wendigo to be “a great representation of a ‘king of the forest’ … like a crown of antlers on a deer. … Guy also tried to find some asymmetry in the design, so I suggested that we erase the eyes to represent inhuman, blind rage.”
Dorian Kingi dons the Wendigo suit to play the monster, but ultimately the monster is a combination of digital, animatronics and suit performing.
Russell, who most recently was on the FX series “The Americans,” does a fine job of mustering the courage to try to save young Lucas, although he resists her efforts to help at first.
Plemons, who has become sort of an Everyman in the movies, also shines as the sheriff who’s trying to figure out how to mend his relationship with his sister — and keep the townsfolk safe from a monster.
The movie is adapted from a short story by Nick Antosca, “The Quiet Boy.”
The movie opens Friday, Oct. 29, nationwide.