Alexandre Aja made a bit of a splash in horror circles with his breakthrough Switchblade Romance (aka High Tension) in 2003, a memorable if preposterous gore fest. He’s spent the best part of the next decade churning out remakes, from the intense The Hills Have Eyes to the experimental Maniac via the ridiculous Piranha 3D. Not that these films are all worthless, but it’s good to see him finally taking on something original, and not just for that reason, as Joe Hill’s inventive 2010 novel Horns has a lot of potential for a cinematic adaptation.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, a twenty-something DJ whose long-time girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) was recently raped and murdered. While not convicted of anything, the whole population of the small town he inhabits believe he committed the crime. He’s hounded by crowds of sign-baring protestors and reporters wherever he goes who begin their questioning with lines like “How does it feel to get away with murder?”
Aja doesn’t seek to make Ig’s innocence ambiguous, the story’s told from his point-of-view and he’s deeply affected by the murder. Then, after a night of heavy drinking with a sympathetic bartender (Kelli Garner), he wakes up to find protrusions growing from his forehead. They seem more than just abnormal growths though, they cause anyone he talks with to start revealing their inner-most impulses.
Aja’s already covered a variety of thematic and tonal material while keeping all of his work comfortably under the ‘horror’ banner, but with Horns, he’s trying to cram so many different approaches into one film that he can’t ever find any consistency. Horns can broadly be called a horror movie but it’s never particularly scary or disturbing. There are times when it plays as a romantic tragedy, with sun-drenched flashbacks to Ig and Merrin’s idyllic teen romance as they initially meet over glances at a church service and grow closer as they get older. Yet the film’s primary plot is more of a murder mystery, driven by Ig’s quest to find her killer. In that respect it fails to ever grip (or surprise when the reveal comes). It also has several moments of overt comedy, with Ig’s setting rival reporters against each other for the reward of an exclusive with him being a particular highlight. On top of this, there are elements of religious satire blended in along with a handful of action scenes and uneasy effects work. There’s even a lengthy flashback sequence about a third in that’s like something out of a Stand By Me type coming of age drama (Stand By Me was, co-incidentally or not, an adaptation of Hill’s father Stephen King).
Horns also possesses a weird, contradictory quality in that on one hand it feels like it trying to compress the novel’s many ideas into a film’s running time, yet on the other it somehow comes across as being a little too long. Maybe a little more refinement was required. The power Ig’s horns give him is a great concept for a dark comedy, but is never fully utilised. It generally results in throwaway gags like a girl wanting to eat a whole box of donuts or a receptionist profanely ordering a mother to shut her child up. It could arguably have been the whole hook for the movie.
I have to give Daniel Radcliffe some credit for trying here, taking on risky roles rather than opting for easy Hollywood ones, and he fits his part here a little more easily than his previous genre effort The Woman in Black. Maybe he and Elijah Wood should team up and play siblings in something, they appear to have similar sensibilities in coming off a massive fantasy franchise.
Horns has enough going for it to recommend a viewing, it’s an admirable effort from Aja in attempting a story like this this but its vast and uneasy mixture of ideas never results in anything truly satisfactory.
Finally, I just can’t get through this whole review without throwing in one repeat of that famous fear-mongering headline: “Harry Potter is of the Devil!”, maybe Radcliffe took that to heart.