Carrying Guillermo del Toro’s stamp of approval, Scott Cooper’s foray into horror is nothing new for a director who is focused on the evil that men do. The western “Hostiles,” organized crime drama “Black Mass,” and backwoods thriller “Out of the Furnace” are all prime examples of the genre known for depicting terrifying events. “Antlers” carries Cooper’s character-driven signature while incorporating Native American folklore to demonstrate once again how men can turn into monsters, albeit in the literal sense this time around.

You can’t spell demonstrate without “demon” something to keep in mind as “Antlers” illustrates how humans can be just as frightening as any flesh-eating evil spirit. The film’s undercurrent of abuse remains prominent as the narrative’s three protagonists are all survivors of maltreatment, physical and sexual. The added extra layer of horror keeps “Antlers” grounded in reality as the film based on Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy” explores the Wendigo myth using a rural Oregon backdrop as the setting.

Kerri Russell, star of FX’s “The Americans” series, plays elementary school teacher Julia Meadows who just relocated from California back to her small hometown in Oregon, a poverty-stricken community living in the shadows of its former coal mine glory days. Riddled with guilt for abandoning her younger brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) to escape their now-deceased father’s abuse — which in Julia’s case turned sexual — she’s moved back into the home which holds so many dark reminders of the past, living once again with her brother who has now become the Sheriff of the small town. Not an easy job as fighting crime has been replaced by serving eviction notices.

Plemons, a Dallas native, has become one of the best character actors working today after appearing in films that include “Judas and the Black Messiah” where he played FBI agent Roy Mitchell, boyfriend Jake in Charlie Kaufman’s disconcerting “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, and Jimmy Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie in Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” His appearance in “Antlers” marks the third collaboration between the actor and Cooper after appearing in “Black Mass” and “Hostiles.”

In the classroom, Julie begins to recognize signs of abuse in withdrawn 12-year-old student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a victim of bullying, whose sketchbook is filled with grisly drawings that resemble a Grimm Brothers version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” According to her brother Sheriff Paul, the boy’s drug-dealing father Frank (Scott Haze) is in constant trouble with the law, a fact reinforced by the film’s opening scene that takes places in a makeshift meth lab inside the town’s abandoned coal mine where Frank and Lucas’ younger brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) have a frightful encounter with the story’s mythological creature.

Despite Paul’s warning to stay away from Frank, Julia suspects Lucas is being abused so she begins to follow the boy. Meanwhile, her suspicions are expressed to Principal Booth (the wonderful Amy Madigan) who decides to visit the remote wilderness home in the hope of having a one-on-one conversation with Frank, not a smart idea. The creepy old home screams horror movie. Throw in a few power tools and an apron — flesh eating is already in the storyline — and bam, welcome to the Oregon Chainsaw Massacre.

Veteran Native American actor Graham Greene (“Dances with Wolves”) makes a cameo as the town’s former sheriff, Warren Stokes, who discovers a mutilated body in the woods. A set of broken antlers and more grisly carcasses lead him to believe that the small community may be dealing with a Wendigo, a mythical elk-like creature with human characteristics that feasts on human flesh. An evil spirit in true form that transforms into the frightening creature after its human host has become a cannibal.

This isn’t the first time the Wendigo has been featured in a horror film, but thanks to Cooper it’s one of the most notable. The practical effects which include prosthetics and puppetry by Legacy Effects are fantastic, giving horror fans plenty of gruesome visuals to salivate over. The score by Javier Navarrete is both sweeping and haunting. The Oscar-nominated Spanish composer who provided aural chills for Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” does it again, setting the mood for the dark thriller.

“Antlers” is the perfect Halloween film. Cooper incorporates the appeal of Indie Horror, typically a low budget which means a heightened story, strong performances, and chills that don’t rely on expensive CGI effects, with the advantages of a mainstream studio production which in this case means a great cast led by Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons who are reason enough to enjoy the film. Also, the performance by young actor Jeremy T. Thomas who makes the jump to the big screen is noteworthy rounding out the exceptional cast.

Head to the movie theatre to check out “Antlers.” As Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) said in John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, “You know it’s Halloween, I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in theatres

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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