Producers: Guillermo del Toro, David S. Goyer and Miles Dale   Director: Scott Cooper   Screenplay: C. Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca and Scott Cooper   Cast: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Cody Davis, Sawyer Jones, Katelyn Peterson and Jake T. Roberts    Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: B+

At a time when junky slasher movies are a dime a dozen, the occasional appearance of an artful work like “The Babadook,” “Hereditary” or “The Witch” to counterbalance them is an event.  Scott Cooper’s films have ranged widely from gritty dramas to westerns, with variable success.  Now, in collaboration with producer Guillermo del Toro, he turns his attention to horror, and “Antlers” proves a genuinely chilling addition to a genre starving for real imagination.

Based on a short story by Nick Antosca, who collaborated with Cooper and C. Henry Chaisson on the screenplay, the tale is set in a declining rust bucket town not unlike the Pennsylvania one in Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” but here in the Pacific Northwest—a once-thriving Oregon coal-mining hub.  After years away Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) has moved back, and is sharing the family home with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the sheriff.  She’s a teacher at the school presided over by Principal Booth (Amy Madigan), and Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), a sad, withdrawn boy in her class, captures her attention, because his melancholy reminds her of her own childhood.

Julia and Paul have a tense relationship because she left him to the mercy of their abusive father.  She feels guilty about that, and is a recovering alcoholic as well, and though reticent, Paul obviously holds a grudge against her for abandoning him.  That familial background impels Julia to try to break through Lucas’ reserve, which, together with his horrific drawings and grim stories, suggests that he’s being abused just as she was.  Her probing eventually reveals a terrible secret about his father Frank (Scott Haze) and younger brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones).

Frank, we learn early on, is a known junkie brewing drugs in an abandoned mine, where his activity awakened a long-buried malignant force that former sheriff Warren Stokes (Graham Greene) will ultimately identify as a wendigo—a ravenous spirit that in this telling takes possession of humans, turning them into monstrous deer-like creatures with that feed on flesh.  Frank was taken over by the wendigo when he encountered it in the mine, and has been locked into an upstairs room of their desolate house by Lucas, along with the also-infected Aiden.  Lucas now scours the area for roadkill that he can serve to his father and brother, a morbid task the morose lad must assume even as he’s being bullied at school by Clint (Cody Davis), a typically nasty classmate.   

“Antlers” follows a fairly predictable narrative path as Frank morphs gradually into the final form of the wendigo and escapes his cell, leading to the discovery of partially consumed corpses in the forest—a crisis that Paul and his taciturn deputy Dan (Rory Cochrane) seem incapable of dealing with.  Inevitably some of the characters we’ve met fall victim to the beast, and eventually Julia, Lucas and Paul will have to confront it—and their deepest fears.  The ending brings the usual quota of twists, along with the obligatory realization that the menace is far from over. 

But though the trajectory of the story is hardly original, Cooper and his crafts team—production designer Karen Nosella, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister and editor Dylan Tichenor—present it in moody style, with deliberate pacing set off by the canny use of light and shadow.  Daytime scenes have a gritty, naturalistic feel, and the nighttime ones are shot through with the red-and-blue flashes from signals on the police cars.  The “kill” sequences are staged with brio, without the jokey, winking attitude so common in horror today, and Javier Navarrete’s score adds to the atmosphere, with some piano doodling that might remind you of Jerry Goldsmith’s contribution to “Psycho II.”                

In addition, the film adds a significant human dimension to the horror.  The characters, and the situation they’re trapped in, are as significant as the grisly effects.  The sense of economic distress is palpable, and the implication that the pillaging of the land has evoked an avenging spirit is introduced without being wielded as a didactic sledgehammer. 

And Julia, Lucas and Paul are all given shading in the writing that’s conveyed in the performances.  The effects of their childhood trauma on brother and sister are sketched somewhat too easily—the convenience-store scenes of Julia resisting buying a bottle of whiskey are rather heavy-handed—but both Russell and Plemons add subtle touches to suggest their pain.  Even more impressive is young Thomas, whose portrait of a quietly tormented twelve-year old is utterly convincing. 

Among the others, Haze captures Frank’s frantic fear as he realizes what’s happening to him, and Jones is pathetic and moving as a young boy doomed to a destiny he can’t understand.  It’s always nice to encounter Greene, even when he’s asked to do little but gravely intone necessary exposition as here, and Madigan manages to join Plemons in suggesting the futility of trying to deal with the horrors—social and economic as well as wendigo-related—in a community that’s clearly on the rails.  (A sequence between Julia and Lucas at an ice-cream parlor prominently features a long line of men and women going into an office near door, presumably for some government benefits.)

So by genre “Antlers” is a horror film, but one that cuts deeper than the slashes inflicted by a supernatural monster.