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‘Antlers’ a scary story of being traumatized by a monster — and by reality

What does a boy do when the murderous beast in the attic is his dad? This is a moody, creepy, scary as hell horror story in which dread rules the day and the night.

Schoolteacher Julia (Keri Russell) comes to the aid of a troubled student, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), in “Antlers.”
Schoolteacher Julia (Keri Russell) comes to the aid of a troubled student, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), in “Antlers.”
Searchlight Pictures

What if the monsters in the attic once were family? What if you were terrified of them but you also wanted to feed them and protect them because what else can you do?

This is just one of the many creatively twisted elements in Scott Cooper’s moody, creepy, scary as hell “Antlers,” a horror story in which dread rules the day and the night.

Writer-director Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace,” “Hostiles”) is an enormously gifted storyteller who infuses nearly every moment of this movie with a sense of despair and hopelessness, as some genuinely goodhearted but in most cases deeply damaged souls struggle mightily to battle a mythical, flesh-eating creature from the deep woods while also dealing with real-world trauma that’s equally frightening.

Producer Guillermo del Toro was undoubtedly a guiding force as well in this adaptation of a short story by Nick Antosca titled “The Quiet Boy.”

With Vancouver standing in for an eternally gray, economically depressed, meth-riddled small town in Oregon, “Antlers” kicks off with a tense and perfectly paced sequence in which single father and small-time meth dealer Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) is cooking his product in a dark and daunting abandoned mine — which, as it turns out, isn’t entirely abandoned.

Soon, we see Frank’s 12-year-old-son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a quiet and closed-off boy who is constantly bullied at school, making his way home, where his father has locked himself and Lucas’ little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) in the attic. Frank has been attacked by a monster from First Nations Algonquin folklore — a wendigo, a malicious and malevolent spirit that possesses people and turns them into horned beasts with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, bone and blood.

Aiden appears to be collateral damage and perhaps a danger to Lucas, which is why Frank keeps him locked away as well. (The makeup, lighting and sound, along with Haze’s manic performance, all contribute to some truly horrific imagery.)

As Lucas scribbles mad and deeply unsettling images in his notebook and retreats ever further into himself, his elementary schoolteacher Julia (Keri Russell) takes an interest in the boy, who appears to be emaciated and quite possibly physically and emotionally abused. (Let’s just say Julia recognizes a fellow survivor.)

Julia has only recently returned to town after a long absence, having essentially abandoned her younger brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) at a time Paul needed her most. Julia and Paul (who’s now with the local police department) are living in the house where they grew up — a house that contained nearly the same level of trauma and damage that young Lucas is experiencing.

When Julia expresses her concerns about Lucas to Paul, we learn Paul has been trying to put away Lucas’ drug-dealing dad for years — but what will happen to the boys if their father is in prison? They’ll get swallowed up by the system, and that might be an even worse alternative.

As I said: bleakness all around.

“Antlers” features invaluable extended cameos by Amy Madigan as the school principal who decides to pay a visit to the Weaver household and hears some strange noises emanating from the attic (uh-oh) and Graham Greene as a former sheriff who shows up from time to time to deliver exposition about the origin of the wendigo legend, a symbol of retribution for all the injustices inflicted upon the local Native Americans.

As is the case with most monster movies, the deadly creature is most effective when seen in flashes and glimpses in the shadows, though it’s pretty terrifying when we get a better look.

Jesse Plemons does his Jesse Plemons thing, which is to disappear into his role. He’s one of the best character actors of his generation.

And Russell delivers a deeply empathetic performance as Julia, who comes to realize she might be the only chance young Lucas has in this world — and that’s even before she learns there are actual monsters in the attic.