Review: ‘Antlers’ (2021), starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane and Amy Madigan

October 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Antlers” (2021)

Directed by Scott Cooper

Culture Representation: Taking place in Cispus Falls, Oregon, the horror film “Antlers” feature a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Native Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A schoolteacher finds out that a 12-year-old student in her class is hiding a horrible secret.

Culture Audience: “Antlers” will appeal primarily to people interested in horror movies that are about how damage to Earth’s environment can have terrifying consequences.

Jesse Plemmons, Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

More than the typical “creature on the loose” horror movie, “Antlers” tells a haunting yet somewhat sluggish story about how a decaying environment can wreak havoc if the problem is ignored. The dangers of this denial of also run deep in the movie’s human relationships that are plagued by abuse and neglect. The movie falls into some very predictable and repetitive traps, but there’s enough suspense in “Antlers” to hold most people’s interest.

Scott Cooper, a filmmaker known for his outlaw-inspired movies about troubled loners (such as 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” and 2015’s “Black Mass”) directed “Antlers” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca. The screenplay is based on Antosca’s 2019 short story “The Quiet Boy.” Guillermo del Toro is one of the producers of “Antlers,” so you know it’s going to be some kind of story involving a mysterious creature hiding among humans. Cooper is also one of the producers of “Antlers.”

The reason why this movie is called “Antlers” is revealed about halfway through the film, which takes place in the small town of Cispus Falls, Oregon. And once this information is disclosed to viewers, the movie just becomes a countdown to when certain people in this small town will find out the secret that a mysterious killer beast is living among them. The fact that “Antlers” is about some kind of deadly monster is part of this movie’s marketing, which includes movie trailers that already showed flashes of this creature. What’s revealed when watching the movie is how the monster ended up this way, why the creature is in this small town, and how this beast has been able to hide.

Fortunately, “Antlers” doesn’t take a stereotypical “slasher flick” route of of just being scene after scene of generic people getting killed. The movie takes its time to let viewers know the main characters of the story. “Antlers” has some not-so-subtle messages about the dangers of polluting the environment. But the movie also has depressing observations about how easily children can be neglected and/or abused, as well as how that trauma can be passed down through generations.

“Antlers” opens with a scene of two grungy-looking men in an abandoned mine shaft. Their names are Frank Weaver (played by Scott Haze) and Kenny Glass (played by Michael Eklund), and they have the type of dirty and disheveled appearance of people who’ve haven’t slept or cleaned themselves in at least a few days. Frank has left his 7-year-old son Aiden Weaver (played by Sawyer Jones) in Frank’s truck outside and ordered Aiden to stay there. He tells Aiden that he has to do some work and that it’s no place for kids.

If this sounds like Frank and Kenny are involved in drugs, it’s because they are. They’re both using the mine shaft as their meth lab. But their meth cooking is about to be interrupted by a mysterious creature that attacks them. After some time has passed, Aiden becomes restless and curious to find out what’s taking his father so long. He goes into the mine shaft and then movie abruptly cuts to the next scene.

Julia Meadows (played by Keri Russell), a bachelorette in her 40s, has recently moved back into the area (Cispus Falls is her hometown) after living in California for 15 years. She works as a teacher at the local middle school. Her younger brother Paul Meadows (played by Jesse Plemons), who is in his 30s, is the sheriff of Cispus Falls. Just like his sister Julia, Paul is single with no children.

It’s eventually revealed in the movie that Paul and Julia have had a somewhat strained relationship because she abruptly moved away from this hometown. Paul felt abandoned by his older sister. And there are still bitter feelings between both siblings for why they became estranged.

In one scene, Paul and Julia have a brief heart-to-heart talk about it. Julia tells Paul about her feelings of guilt about this long exit from his life: “Just know that I have spent my entire life trying to deal with leaving you.” Julia also says that she would understand if Paul still resents her, but she couldn’t stay in their family household anymore.

Paul seems to understand but he also wants it known how Julia’s departure hurt him. “I spent my entire praying that you’d come back,” he tells her. What caused this family rift? It’s shown in nightmares that Julia has that she and Paul had an abusive father (played by Andy Thompson), who is now deceased. One of the flashbacks (with Katelyn Peterson as an adolescent Julia) makes it clear without showing anything too explicit that Julia’s father was a deeply troubled man who sexually abused her. The mother of Paul and Julia is also dead, and it’s unknown how much she knew about this abuse.

In her classroom, Julia is frustrated because her students don’t seem to be connecting with her. The kids seem bored or unimpressed with her style of teaching. At this point in the cirriculum, she is teaching them about folklore and fables. Julia asks for the students to volunteer what they know about these types of stories that can be centuries old.

Eventually, Julia finds out that a quiet and shy 12-year-old boy in her class named Lucas Weaver (played by Jeremy T. Thomas) has been drawing some disturbing images in his notebook. The illustrations include demon-like animal figures in the woods. Does one of the creatures have antlers? Of course it does.

One day, Julia asks Lucas to tell her and the classroom of students what’s the story behind one of the drawings. Lucas then tells a creepy tale of a little bear that lives with a big bear and a small bear that are different because the big bear and small bear are always hungry. Based on the reactions by the other students in the class, Lucas is now perceived as even more of a “freak” who is a social outcast at the school.

Even before Lucas told this story, he was being bullied at school by some other boys. The leader of the bullies is a mean-spirited brat named Clint Owens (played by Cody Davis), who gets his comeuppance when Lucas puts dog excrement in Clint’s backpack for revenge. It sets off a feud between the Clint and Lucas. And if you know how horror stories like this usually go, things will not end well for one of these boys.

In the meantime, Julie notices that Lucas looks pale and undernourished. She gently and tactfully tries to find out from Lucas what his home life is like. The only thing that Lucas will tell her is that his mother is dead, and that his 7-year-old bother Aiden is homeschooled. Lucas resists Julie’s attempts to befriend him. Julie feels like she can relate to Lucas, because they are both treated like outsiders at the school.

Julie takes her concerns about Lucas to her boss, Principal Ellen Booth (played by Amy Madigan), who seems distracted and very reluctant to get involved. Principal Booth tells Julie that after Lucas’ mother died of a drug overdose, child protective services investigated suspicions that the Weaver household was abusive, but CPS didn’t find enough evidence to warrant taking the children away from the home. And so, Frank Weaver was allowed to keep custody of Aiden and Lucas. Principal Booth promises Julie that she will stop by the Weaver household in the near future to check up on the children.

Cispus Falls has been on an economic decline for years. And it’s been made worse by the opioid crisis and meth epidemic that have ravaged Cispus Falls and its surrounding areas. However, the drug-related crimes that have been plaguing the community somewhat pale in comparison to the murders that have suddenly begun to happen in Cispus Falls: Mutilated bodies, including one of the meth lab men from the opening scene, are being discovered in the town’s wooded area.

Paul and his small team of police officers begin to suspect that a people-killing wild animal is on the loose. But there are many signs that this is no ordinary animal. Footprints indicate that this creature can walk upright. And the bite marks are unlike anything that the local forensic pathologist has ever seen.

There are some supporting characters in “Antlers” that are quite formulaic. Rory Cochrane portrays Daniel Lecroy, one of the cops on the Cispus Falls police force. Grahame Greene is Warren Stokes, a stereotypical elder resident of the town who seems to know everyone’s business and the town’s history. Warren is also the one who talks about the Native American folk tales that offer clues into the mystery behind the creature.

Between the disturbing drawings made by Lucas and the discovery of the mutilated bodies, it doesn’t ake a genius to figure out what’s going on. Julie does her own investigating, and Paul eventually finds out what she’s learned. Therefore, the main suspense in the story comes from wondering who’s going to die and who’s going to survive.

The bond that Julia tries to form with Lucas runs almost parallel to her trying to heal her fractured relationship with her brother Paul. There’s an underlying message of how children with dysfunctional or absentee parents can often find strength and support with each other if they don’t put up too many emotional barriers. Lucas’ plight becomes very personal to Julia. She feels like she wants to “save” Lucas because she knows what it’s like to be a kid who needed help but no one was there to save or protect her.

As expected, the creature’s full physical appearance is eventually shown in the movie. These scenes with the monster attacks should bring enough chills to horror audiences, but “Antlers” ultimately does nothing groundbreaking with how this creature looks or acts. (Dorian Kingi portrays the antlered monster.) The movie doesn’t over-rely on CGI visual effects for gimmicks, but it does rely on a suspension of disbelief that all the mayhem the creature causes wouldn’t eventually be noticed by more people and would eventually make big news. For example, if this situation happened in real life, it would need more than a small-town police department to handle it.

An argument could be made that “Antlers” should have been a short film. And there’s some validity to the argument, since the movie tends to drag for long stretches to an inevitable conclusion. However, the principal cast members’ performances serve the story in a competent way. No one is a bad actor here, but no one is outstanding either.

One of the big issues that “Antler” doesn’t address adequately is how Lucas has been able to keep his big secret for as long as he has without raising suspicions sooner. However, it might be the movie’s way of showing how abuse and neglect of children can happen in plain sight and nothing is really done about it. People (such as Principal Booth) who should be mindful of the warning signs sometimes prefer to deny that there’s a problem and make any excuse they can to avoid getting involved. In that respect, you don’t need an antlered monster to know that these real-life tragedies are their own horror stories.

Searchlight Pictures released “Antlers” in U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sinners’ (2021), starring Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Coates, Brenna Llewellyn, Aleks Paunovic, Lochlyn Munro, Michael Eklund and Tahmoh Penikett

February 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Brenna Llewellyn, Natalie Malaika, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Jasmine Randhawa, Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Coates and Carly Fawcett in “The Sinners.” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“The Sinners” (2021)

Directed by Courtney Paige

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the horror flick “The Sinners” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of color) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: In a conservative Christian town, seven teenage girls form a cult-like clique where they each represent the seven deadly sins, and then members of the group start getting murdered.

Culture Audience: “The Sinners” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in independent horror films that are suspenseful and make the most out of their low budgets.

A scene from “The Sinners.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Carly Fawcett, Kaitlyn Bernard and Natalie Malaika. Pictured in second row, from left to right: Jasmine Randhawa, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Brenna Coates and Brenna Llewellyn. (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

Before anyone dismisses “The Sinners” as just another horror movie where a bunch of teenagers get murdered, consider that it skillfully takes on religious bigotry and sexual oppression while balancing it with an intriguing mystery, gruesome horror and even some touches of comedy. It’s not an easy balancing act, but “The Sinners” mostly succeeds in being a memorable independent horror film in a sea of mindless slasher flicks.

“The Sinners” is the feature-film directorial debut of Courtney Paige, who wrote the screenplay with Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith. Paige is also an actress, which might explain why the casting is better than most low-budget movies of this type. Some of the acting is amateurish, but the dynamics between the actors look more authentic and natural than a lot of horror movies that could care less about character development or chemistry between the actors.

The story of “The Sinners” centers on a clique of seven girls who are classmates in their last year at a Christian high school in an unnamed city in North America. (The movie was actually filmed in Paige’s Canadian hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia.) These teenagers call themselves The Sins, and they have each assigned themselves to represent one of the seven deadly sins. They are:

  • Grace Carver (played by Kaitlyn Bernard), the group’s assertive blonde leader, represents the sin of lust. It’s ironic because Grace, who is the child of a strict pastor, is a virgin, but she has a secret love that’s considered taboo in her religion.
  • Tori Davidson (played by Brenna Coates), who sometimes dresses as an emo or Goth, represents the sin of wrath. She’s the tough-talking rebel of the group, and she’s in a secretive romance with Grace.
  • Katie Hamilton (played by Keilani Elizabeth Rose), who is very spoiled and materialistic, represents the sin of greed. She likes to make others feel inferior by bragging about what her wealth can buy her.
  • Molly McIvor (played by Carli Fawcett), a compulsive eater, represents the sin of gluttony. She is very self-conscious about her looks because she’s not as thin as the other girls in the group.
  • Robyn Pearce (played by Natalie Malaika), a passive follower, represents the sin of sloth. She wants to go to a good college but is too lazy to study, so she cheats instead.
  • Stacey Rodgers (played by Jasmine Randhawa), who often compares herself to other people, represents the sin of envy. Her loyalty depends on what she can get out of it.
  • Aubrey Miller (played by Brenna Llewellyn), a quiet redhead who becomes a target for the others’ bullying, represents the sin of pride. The other members of the Sins turn on Aubrey when Grace decides that Aubrey is a snitch.

Aubrey is the narrator of the movie, which opens with a scene of Aubrey being kidnapped by the other Sins, who are wearing masks. This kidnapping ends up being the catalyst for much of the horror that happens in the last third of the film, when certain members of the Sins are murdered, one by one. This isn’t a slasher film where the murderer is revealed from the beginning. There are several people who could be suspects.

Out of all the members of the Sins, Grace is the one whose home life is shown the most. She lives with her parents and three siblings in a very oppressive and religious home ruled over by her father Pastor Dean Carver (played by Tahmoh Penikett), who demands that everything has to be done his way. Grace’s mother Brenda Carver (played by Loretta Walsh) is passive, but she has compassion and often acts as a peacemaker when Dean and Grace get into arguments.

Grace’s older sister Hannah (played by Karis Cameron) sometimes shares Grace’s tendency to be sarcastic and rebellious. By contrast, their younger teenage brother Luke Carver (played by Maxwell Haynes) wants to be the family’s “goody-two-shoes” child and is ready to tattle on Grace and Hannah to their father if he sees them doing anything wrong. The youngest child in the family is a baby boy, who’s briefly seen in the movie and whose name is not mentioned.

At the beginning of the movie, Grace has broken up with a fellow student named Kit Anderson (played by Dylan Playfair), who is still pining for Grace because he keeps calling her and trying to get back together with her. Some of the students, including the other members of the Sins, are aware that Grace and Tori are more than friends. However, Kit is in denial that Grace could be a member of the LGBTQ community and ignores the rumors that are swirling about Grace’s sexuality.

Grace and Tori have to keep their romance a secret, because they go to a religious high school (where all the students wear uniforms and have classes where they study the Bible) and they live in a very conservative Christian community. Tori and Grace canoodle in bathroom stalls at school, and their study sessions in Grace’s bedroom have some snuggling and kissing. Grace’s pastor father doesn’t really approve of Tori, who’s the type of student who will get sent to the principal’s office for blurting out impatiently in class: “Jesus, are you done?”

Grace’s father also doesn’t really approve of Grace’s part-time after-school job working at a flower stand called Andy’s Flower Stream. The business, which operates out of an Airstream trailer, is owned by a bohemian type named Andy Lund (played by James Neate), who’s a laid-back and friendly boss. Andy lives in the trailer with his hippie-ish girlfriend Summer Dobson (played by Jen Araki), who encourages Grace to walk in bare feet and feel “love and light.”

In a voiceover, Aubrey says about Summer, who used to be Aubrey’s babysitter: “I always had a creepy feeling about her. You know the people who always claim ‘light and love and positive.’ Well, they’re usually the most broken.” But the person Aubrey dislikes the most is Tori, because she thinks Tori is a hateful bully.

The top law enforcement official in town is Sherriff Fred Middleton (played by Aleks Paunovic), who provides some of the movie’s comic relief because he tries to be imposing but he’s really kind of a goofball. He’s first seen in the movie when he shows up in the empty classroom where his wife Maggie Middleton (played by Elysia Rotaru) is a teacher at the high school. (Maggie is also Andy’s sister.)

Maggie walks in the classroom and tells Fred, as she unbuttons her blouse, that they have nine minutes before the students arrive for the next class. Fred and Maggie, who’ve been trying to start a family, end up having quickie sex in the classroom. It’s played for laughs because Aubrey, who sees Fred leave the classroom and guesses what he had been doing there, asks him what he has on his collar. He quickly looks to see if a stain is there (there isn’t) and figures out that Aubrey was just trying to embarrass him when she tells him that she tried to go into the classroom but the door was locked.

Aubrey keeps a journal of her innermost thoughts. And all hell breaks loose when Tori and Kathy steal Aubrey’s journal. Certain incidents lead the other Sins to believe that Aubrey has been snitching on them. And when they find out what Aubrey has to say about them in the journal, their suspicions seem to be confirmed.

First, they lure Aubrey into a “study group” session which turns out to be an excuse to harass and haze her. Then, they kidnap Aubrey and take her to a remote wooded area, where things spiral out of control, but Aubrey manages to escape and goes missing. And then, other members of the Sins start to disappear and are brutally murdered.

Sheriff Middleton and his Deputy Douglas Sanders (played by Taylor St. Pierre) end up clashing with the higher-level government detectives who are sent to investigate the murders. The outside investigators are Detective Zankowski (played Michael Eklund) and Detective O’Ryan (played by Lochlyn Munro), who treat the sheriff and the deputy like incompetent yokels. Middleton and Sanders think that they’re being undermined by arrogant big-city types who don’t know the community. Meanwhile, as these two factions have their power struggle, more of the Sins get killed.

“The Sinners” makes great use of cinematography by Stirling Bancroft to create an atmosphere of foreboding beneath the pristine and orderly exterior of this suburban community. (There’s a recurring image of a rose stuck in the mouth of dead girl that’s particularly striking. It’s probably why the move was originally titled “The Color Rose.”) The movie’s production design and costume design are well-done, given the film’s small budget. And the whodunit aspect of the mystery is not as predictable as viewers might think it is.

There’s only one scene in the movie that seems awkward and out-of-place. It involves Grace having a secret occult meeting with two women and one man who look at least 10 years older than she is. It’s never explained how a sheltered preacher’s kid like Grace came to find these people or how long she’s known them. And the scene ends up being irrelevant, given what happens at the end of the movie.

The actresses who portray the seven Sins are convincing as a pack of “mean girls” who are “frenemies,” with their loyalty to each other always in question. As Tori, Coates stands out with having the most realistic acting and also the most obviously complicated character. On the one hand, Tori is exactly the type of bully that Aubrey despises. On the other hand, Tori has a very tough-but-tender side to her that’s loving with Grace and very protective of her. Their secret romance adds another layer of terror and anxiety in the story, since the unforgiving homophobia in their community makes Grace and Tori afraid to be open about the true nature of their relationship.

“The Sinners” is definitely not a horror classic on the level of director David Fincher’s 1995 film “Seven,” another macabre thriller with the seven deadly sins as its theme. As far as slasher films go, “The Sinners” can be considered slightly better than most. And it’s also a promising feature directorial debut for Paige, who shows she has a knack for telling a gripping horror story in a way that can capture people’s interest from beginning to end.

Brainstorm Media released “The Sinners” on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.

UPDATE: Lifetime will premiere the movie under the title “The Virgin Sinners” on August 21, 2021.