Nov 182021
 

The new horror film Antlers is set in a decaying Oregon town, where a single father, Frank, is seen with his young son Aiden outside a mine. What at first seems like an innocent father-son bonding moment turns dark, literally and figuratively, as we see that Frank is involved in a meth lab, and promptly attacked by, well, something terrifying with the titular antlers.

This situation comes to the attention of a teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), who lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. Julia becomes concerned when she sees disturbing (horror film cliché) drawings of scary monsters from withdrawn outcast Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), presumably depicting his troubled family life. Julia eventually realizes that Frank is/was Lucas’s father, and Aiden his brother, and that something sinister and supernatural is going on.

The film, adapted from Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” was completed in 2019 and its opening delayed several times due to covid. The plot is based on legends of the wendigo (spelled various ways), and the filmmakers hired a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies to serve as its advisor on Native American folklore. It’s an intriguing premise, but one area where the plot falters is in explaining the origin of the menace. We’re told, in an Ojibwe opening verse, of an evil spirit with a ravenous appetite that possesses humans and causes them to kill and eat others. The wendigo is typically associated with winter, famine, need, and scarcity. This is Screenwriting 101: a hero (or heroine in this case) saves the day using important knowledge gleaned from a wise, often reluctant, source in the second act. In this case the wisdom is imparted from Native American actor Graham Greene, best known for his turns in Dances With Wolves and Wind River. Armed with a Cliff’s Notes-inspired, Wikipedia-summarized understanding of the wendigo, plucky Julia goes above and beyond her contractual teacher obligations to face the fearsome foe as mangled bodies pile up.

Wendigo Lore

Writing in The Journal of Religion and Popular CultureBrady DeSanti (2015) notes “Many contemporary Ojibwe communities accept the windigo as a real entity that exists alongside countless manitous (spiritual beings) of varying degrees of power and disposition that permeate their experience of the world. Understood to be a giant monster with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, the windigo possesses hideous features and immense physical and spiritual power. The windigo can also be understood as a representation of the freezing temperatures of the northeastern and Great Lakes regions and the resource scarcity that occasionally ensues during harsh winters. And while the Ojibwe never practised cannibalism, the windigo’s appearance can in part be seen as a symbolic projection of the absolute horror at the prospect of, and, at times, instances of, famine cannibalism that took place as a result of food shortages… In most accounts, the windigo possesses a heart of ice and appears emaciated regardless of how much it consumes. The creature’s appetite increases in proportion to how much flesh it eats, ensuring it is never satiated,” even as it seeks more victims to possess and consume.

DeSanti notes that despite its native origins the wendigo “continues to appear in a variety of horror films, television series, novels, comic books, and cartoons. As an example of how expansive the windigo’s reach is throughout the entertainment industry, the cannibalistic entity made a brief appearance in a cartoon episode of My Little Pony in 2011… The windigo is a relatively new and popular option for the entertainment industry, but despite this popularity, it is mostly used by entertainment outlets as just another stock monster comparable to many other notable fiendish creatures, such as werewolves, vampires, zombies, and demons. Unlike these other monsters, however, the windigo remains a viable component of the religious beliefs of many North American tribal nations. In other words, windigo beliefs have not been severed from their original cultural contexts as the monsters of urban lore and cinema have.” In this regard, the wendigo is similar to the Hispanic infanticidal ghost La Llorona in its pop culture depictions.

Wendigo Psychosis

There is a fair amount of literature on the wendigo. Psychologists and anthropologists have identified a disorder called Wendigo Psychosis, which “has long been regarded as a disorder specific to the people of the northern tribes of Algonkian-speaking Indians. This disorder is marked by the desire to eat human flesh—a desire to do something which is ordinarily extremely repugnant and horrifying to these people—but a desire which was gratified by more than half of the individuals whose cases have been reported,” according to Thomas Hay’s 1971 article in American Anthropologist

A deeper look at cannibalism is beyond the scope here, but it’s notable that Hay recognizes that eating the remains of the dead is more common than might be assumed: “Ritual consumption of the body of the deceased by his nearest relatives occurs in Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific, and is relatively frequent among South American Indians. Participation in such socially controlled, ritual cannibalism is not generally regarded asevidence of psychopathology.” And it’s not just native peoples; indeed, “The belief in the efficacy of cannibalism for restoring a relationship with the dead in Western Civilization is evidenced by the symbolic cannibalism in the Communion ritual of the various Christian churches.”

In 1970 anthropologist Vivian J. Rorhl suggested that the genesis of the psychosis might be due in part to starvation experienced by the afflicted individuals, and therefore that eating animal fat would be considered part of the cure, a way to “exorcise” the spirit from the body. Others, however, including researcher Jennifer Brown the following year noted that employing Occam’s Razor it’s just as likely that better nutrition was instead given to address the body’s (obvious) starvation instead of the mind’s (presumed) wendigo possession. In other words giving the patient calories was part of a behavioral, not psychological, cure.

More recent research (e.g., Kolan et al. 2019) suggests that wendigo psychosis is rare, with 70 cases being reported in the 1960s, though firm data is elusive and much of it anecdotal. “The hunter Plains Cree from Alberta, known as Swift Runner, is held as a classical case of Wendigo psychosis. During the winter season in 1878 a series of tragic events took place. Due to the permanent hunger, the oldest descendant of the trapper from Alberta died. The next day a mother and five children, being close to a food repository in Hudson’s Bay, were suddenly attacked. The culprit was a father and a husband, Swift Runner. The murder was committed for the cannibalistic purpose. Because of the murder’s background, which was a short distance to the food supply and losing all members of the family, the man was diagnosed with Wendigo psychosis. He was sentenced to death in Fort Saskatchewan.”

The diagnosis of wendigo psychosis as a culture-bound condition has fallen out of favor as an explanation, and at any rate the decline of its incidence isn’t surprising. Various factors play a role: with modern food distribution, starvation is less common than in decades past, and even on chronically underfunded Native American and First Nations reservations, psychosis diagnosis and treatment has improved. 

Antlers and Wendigo

As for the wendigo in Antlers, it’s all well and good to use a creature as a metaphor for social ills; it’s been done before, for example the consumerism-satirizing zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). But translating folklore into cinema is a tricky task because once a menace is fixed in film it’s crystallized. The wendigo can be seen as a symbol of social and moral decay, in this case drug addiction, child abuse, poverty, environmental degradation, and so on. A folklorist or storyteller can evocatively describe what a monster “means” to the cultures that tell its stories. A filmmaker—and especially a visual effects supervisor—will reply, “Yeah, yeah, that’s great and all—but how do I show it on the screen? I can’t sculpt or animate an idea or metaphor. What, exactly, am I designing? What are audiences going to see and hear?” In the end, Antlers is a monster movie, and the monster is terrifying indeed, with effective special effects.

Working from the premise of the wendigo, as audiences are required to do in suspending disbelief, the question naturally come up: why now, in the context of the story? There’s nothing new about economic hardship or drug abuse, especially in small rural towns. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that’s all it takes to create a wendigo, then why aren’t they commonplace? Why isn’t the community’s response a jaded “Oh, another one?” instead of “I’ve never seen anything like this before”?

Questions like these become even more relevant when the film concludes and the conflict is (seemingly) resolved; if the wendigo is indeed possessing people more or less at will then all is lost because it will never be destroyed. You can keep killing its hapless hosts, but that’s not really going to solve the fundamental problem as long as there’s still someone alive to possess. This leads to a bit of a contradiction (or plot hole, depending on your point of view) at the end. There’s also a bit of a red herring involving native American medicine bags, which are key to the plot because they make the connection between Frank’s death and the wendigo, but whose presence are never explained…

I strongly suspect that important material was cut for a leaner runtime of 99 minutes—a common occurrence in films. Around the sixth or tenth edit, and with pressure from theaters and distributors for films to be shorter to allow more screening per day, editors and directors often second-guess their decisions: Do we really need to have this dialogue in the film, or does another scene serve the same narrative function? How many scenes that have the same theme do we need to drive the point home? There’s no right or wrong answer—and finished films are inevitably the result of hundreds (or even thousands) of decisions and compromises made along the way—but it may explain the mediocrity of Antlers. I suspect that a longer director’s cut, if one is ever released, will offer a more satisfying storyline.

The considerable narrative power and potential is squandered a bit in the last act, which abandons its folkloric and social themes in favor of routine horror film cliches. There are a few bits of clumsy expositional screenwriting, such as when dialogue explains things the characters already know (early in the film Frank tells his son Aiden that they’re going to pick up “your brother Lucas,” in case Aiden wasn’t sure what his brother’s name was, or which of several Lucases they’d be picking up).

But it’s a low-budget horror film so let’s not get too pedantic because there’s a lot to be said for Antlers, starting with the cinematography and setting. You can feel the grey dampness of rural Oregon creep off the screen. The fog mirrors the gloomy bleakness of the town, shrouded with decay and secrets (a teacher grimly tells Julia that many children in the small community don’t attend school because their parents make methamphetamine and don’t want their kids to smell of it in class, thus triggering a mandatory police check). It’s an ideal setting for a gothic horror film, and it’s not surprising that that writer/director Guillermo del Toro is a producer on the film, as his cinematic sensibilities are (thankfully) everywhere onscreen. The special effects are impressive, in all their gory glory. The acting is effective, especially from the lead characters including newcomer Jeremy T. Thomas; unfortunately most of the other characters are underdeveloped. 

Like many horror films that end with a climactic battle with some supernatural presence (usually at night, for dramatic effect) and then a short coda or epilogue taking place the next day, I always have to wonder how everything that happened (homicides, monster carcasses, etc.) was satisfactorily explained to authorities. It’s one thing for outsiders to be skeptical of whatever astonishing claims the heroes are reporting until the climax, but the aftermath would typically leave mountains of incontrovertible proof that would raise more questions than answers. Antlers is a middling monster movie with missed potential, worth a watch on a dark night but wait for a director’s cut if you can.

 
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it HERE. 

 

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