The phrase "elevated horror" gets bandied about pretty freely for something that has no concrete definition beyond "the kind of horror movies distributed by A24". But there's certainly something going on that deserves a word to describe it, a strain of unconnected movies that mix in horror with serious character drama. It is a very real tendency in contemporary horror cinema, and part of the reason I feel suddenly so moved to pin it down is because whatever it is, it's causing some real trouble for Antlers, a new-ish film that has the distinction of being one of the very first movies delayed by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. If I am not mistaken, it's the very last of that first wave of delayed films to have finally opened for public consumption.

Given how patiently I've been waiting on the movie ever since it was first knocked off of its 17 April, 2020 release date, it would be extremely nice if I could say it was worth it. And it sort of is, insofar as the film isn't bad. It has unmistakable appeal as a gory creature feature, though it seems extremely anxious not to. Indeed, the thing that made me far and away the most excited to see the movie all these months, that this is the first reasonably-budgeted studio film featuring a wendigo, a monstrous cannibalistic humanoid from Algonquian folklore, technically constitutes a spoiler: the very word "wendigo" doesn't show up until a good halfway through the film (which wasn't enough to keep it out of the trailer, and hence why I feel sanguine about mentioning it now). And I shall say this in favor of Antlers, is it a damn fine wendigo film, when it can be bothered to be a wendigo film at all.

Because for a very long time, it clearly wants to instead be taken as a very serious film about The Problems facing America today. Which problems changes a little bit based on the scene, which is where Antlers gets itself into trouble; it's so anxious to be "elevated horror" that it can't make up its mind what the hell it wants to be "elevated" bout. It just surely doesn't want to be a lowly genre film. So maybe it can be about the economic collapse of rural U.S. towns and the drug epidemic that has taken root in them as despair washes over the locals (methamphetamine and opiods show up!), and if that's not good enough, perhaps it can instead be about cycles of domestic abuse and how there's simply no good way to get out of these terrible situations, only find whatever best makes them survivable. Or perhaps, since it's drawing from Algonquian folklore, it can be about the way that indigenous Americans remain crushed by poverty and other oppressive systems, and how the earnest focus of nice white liberals on saying the right words to "center native voices" is mostly just a way of making those same nice white liberals feel less guilty about themselves. But that's complicated and uncomfortable, so probably best to just let that theme purr along under a few scenes without ever doing much to develop it, other than allow Oneida actor Graham Greene to steal the film from the rest of the cast, giving Antlers its most personable and lively performance in his handful of scenes. That's kind of centering a native voice, isn't it?

The point being, the first half of Antlers is a rambling mess of underdeveloped - but extremely sincere! - Themes with a capital T. To actually give you the plot: Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) is attacked by something in the abandoned mine outside of the small town in Oregon where he cooks meth to make ends meet. Three weeks later, his elder son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) continues to put in an effort to go through normal daily life, but he looks like death that hasn't even been warmed over, gaunt with dark circles around his eyes so large that they're mostly just his face. This does not go unnoticed by Lucas's schoolteacher, Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), who has herself just recently returned to town to reconnect with her brother, the reluctant sheriff Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons); the death of their father, who abused Julia until she fled as a teenager, seems to have encouraged her return, and things aren't going very well for her; every little corner of the house is apt to trigger vivid hallucinations of Dad's hands groping their way around his daughter's body, and I will at this point note that not only does Antlers have a hard time settling on what Themes it wants to explore, sometimes when it does pick a Theme, it goes about it in a jaw-droppingly crass and tasteless way.

Anyway, Julia decides to make Lucas her project, which is an uncharitable way of describing a good teacher taking notice of a troubled student, but Paul isn't entirely wrong when he calls her out on it. To cut to the chase, Lucas is keeping both his dad and his younger brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) locked in the attic, throwing roadkill and the occasionally freshly-dead animal up to them. He is doing this because Frank, at least, has turned more or less completely inhuman: he looks like a person, sure, but a person whose stringy black hair is falling out, and whose skin has become a putrescent shade of grey, and whose face is contorted into an animalistic snarl that only goes away when he pounces on the dead things his son has prepared for him. It will take a good long while before anybody but Lucas knows this is going on; to the rest of the world, he appears to be living in an abandoned house, his father and brother absconded to God knows where, while he slowly wastes away, a tiny victim of the widespread ruin of the American economy.

This, again, gets us midway through the film, and I will not lie: I was bored stiff. The best we can say about Antlers is that it tries to take all of this very heavy material seriously; it doesn't typically succeed, is the thing. The film is a mash-up of every idea that writers Henry Chaisson & Nick Antosca and Scott Cooper, adapting Antosca's short story "The Quiet Boy", can stuff into a movie set in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and it's mostly just dour and self-serious. Cooper, who also directs, is a specialist in grim Oscarbait set in rural areas; this most particularly resembles his 2013 Out of the Furnace, also a mordant tale of how people deal with the collapse of their livelihoods in dying towns. That worked better, in part because it chose a target and aimed at it with some success; Antlers is a grab-bag and it doesn't pay attention to anything long enough to develop it well, though by anchoring itself to the characters, and Russell's methodical performance, the runner about one abuse survivor helping who she imagines to be an abuse victim manages to at least feel like a complete story.

No two ways about it, though, the film takes a massive leap in quality when it finally runs out of tricks for keeping us from realising that it's been a monster movie all along, and just embraces the nasty Thing that Frank is transforming into, up in that attic. Horror has never been altogether absent from the movie - dead bodies show up, rather horribly mutilated, and shown in some detail onscreen - but eventually it takes over altogether, when the freakish, deer-like wendigo shows up, and the glum movie Scott Cooper has been directing is replaced by the spooky, violent nightmare that feels much more like the work of producer Guillermo Del Toro. Very much to its benefit: the wendigo in all its glory (which isn't very true to the Algonquian creature - Frank in the attic is actually much closer to the traditional description) is one hell of a great movie creature, a big complicated practical effect sweetened and embellished by CGI. And once Antlers turns into the story of Julia trying to keep in front of it while Lucas seems absolutely convinced that it's a new version of his dad that will love him better than the crappy old one did, it's pretty great: soaked in damp fog (you can't beat the area around Vancouver for dank, dark, moody forests to film in: there's a strong early-season X-Files vibe to the movie that suits it well), lit with flashlights, not afraid to hide from gore when it will make a good impact.

So by all means, once Antlers commits to being a horror movie, it's worth it, and worthy of being the first major studio movie with a proper wendigo (there have been various indies with wendigos and sort-of wendigos, but the closest a major release has ever come is 1999's Ravenous, and that wasn't tremendously close). It's bleak and creepy and full of a sense of terrible loss; the combined talents of Russell, Plemons, Greene, and Thomas (the last aided considerably by the terrifyingly emaciated look the make-up department gives him) are strong enough to give this more humanity and personality than is necessary. Russell and Plemons, in particular, do pretty wonderful work in sketching out a sibling relationship that is quite tense and full of only moderately-hidden resentment; Plemons nails the film's best line delivery with a short, passive-aggressive jab at Julia for abandoning her brother to their vile father, delivered with such breezy, upbeat energy that the horrors buried in it take a shocked second to land. It's easy to feel good about a movie that backloads its strengths; it leaves you feeling well-used. But damn, that opening half is a rough go: ashamed of its genre, and utterly graceless in its attempts to talk about social issues. And I am perhaps complimenting by merely calling it "graceless". If there was some way to watch this as a propulsive 40-minute featurette, it would be an instant genre classic. as it stands, I'm not sure that it's not at least a minor classic-in-waiting - the wendigo effects are just so extremely good, it's impossible not to root for them - but it's a lot more work than it should be to get to the good stuff.