Movie Review: Horns

by Dan Fields

Daniel Radcliffe pursues the truth with diabolical powers in Alexandre Aja's Horns
© 2013 Dimension Films / RADiUS-TWC

Synergy With The Devil, or
Faust Highway

Alexandre Aja, a French filmmaker gone Hollywood down the most gore-splattered highway possible, engages a story more firmly rooted in the human soul than ever before. His prior moviemaking turns (most recently as producer for a harrowing remake of William Lustig’s Maniac) betray a penchant for jittering, shrieking horror that attacks the senses, the brain and heart second. Horns, based on the much-lauded novel by Joe Hill, plunges his raw director’s hands into a moral fable whose questions and troubling answers require some serious thought.

Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is a tortured soul in a bruised body. His dual burden is to come to terms with the brutal murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), while staving off an angry mob of former friends and neighbors convinced that, despite his acquittal, Ig himself killed off the hometown darling. His only true allies seem to be his brother Terry (Joe Anderson) his defense attorney Lee (Max Minghella), and his torch-carrying bartender Glenna (Kelli Garner), all of whom have known Ig since childhood. Between the three of them, there just might be some answers lurking, but Ig’s impotent rage at the cosmic unfairness of it all seems to have him deadlocked in limbo.

Ig finally lets his rage out in a drunken spree that apparently shakes something loose in either heaven or hell. Waking the next morning, he finds a wicked pair of horns sprouting from his head. Not only that, but everyone he meets treats him differently. His horns grant him a devilish power over people, compelling them to pour out their secret sins and desires. At first an unwilling confessor, he gradually realizes that lurking among the nauseating secrets of his neighbors is the identity of Merrin’s killer. With this in mind, he hones his fiendish influence to maximum effect, stalking the truth around town as the changes in him take deeper root.

Horns, in both print and cinematic form, is a story that permits the reversal of a well-respected character writing rule. Good characters should typically say one thing and mean another, hiding their true feelings in body language or incongruous action. In Ig’s diabolical presence, the people he meets are compelled to confess the full, often superfluous truth of their darker urges. They say exactly what they feel, including things that one human being should never admit to another for the good of society. There are dark, horrifying veins of comedy to be mined here. Aja’s direction seems to work best on the core cast, who play the melodrama straight and let both horror and humor occur naturally. Too many of the minor supporters go silly, too aware of themselves as grim punchlines to keep the tone balanced. The movie mugs too broadly in spots to keep the tension taut, but some of these moments are still pretty good jokes. Midway through his odyssey, Ig discovers that inciting mayhem is the most effective way to get accusers off his back, such as offering a pack of dirt-hungry reporters an exclusive interview if they brawl to the death. By contrast, the subplot involving a pair of sadistic cops, who ache to catch Ig in some terrible crime for the pleasure of roughing him up, falls decidedly flat.

The script by Keth Bunin condenses the plot into a more conventional narrative flow than in the source novel, which dampens the paranoid mystery pervading Hill’s tale. The story is clear enough, yet there are several lapses into unnecessary voiceover narration by Radcliffe, underlining plot points that needed no clarification. Overall, though, it remains a sound murder mystery with plenty of bizarro touches to keep it compelling. As Ig’s transformation becomes more monstrous, his efficacy as a detective become sharper. The ruthless confidence bestowed by his condition is precisely what he needs to become a proactive, successful character.
Loose and scattershot at first, the tone coheres sufficiently by the third act to carry Horns to a pretty satisfying conclusion.

Aja, who crafts the film with surprising restraint given such earlier works as High Tension and Pirahna 3D, ultimately gives in to the temptation for grandiose high-viscera confrontation. This is running time that would have been better spent on a little more background story for the important people in Ig’s life. Their motivations make credible sense, but the agony of each decisions that brought about Merrin’s death and Ig’s downfall deserves richer exploration.

The mystery of Horns runs deeper than the identity of Merrin’s killer. At first, Ig’s slow transfiguration seem to be the symptoms of internal corruption. As the story goes on, twists of plot suggest ambiguously that external forces, whether love or hate or truth embodied, possibly a compassionate devil or deity, have cursed him just enough to tap his true humanity and strength. Whether his horns were the free supernatural gift of a just universe or a Faust bargain made in desperate, drunken amnesia remains an unsettling question to ponder later.

Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, whose body of work includes David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, frames Horns in vaguely queasy, high-contrast tones hinting at a world with a subtle inner disorder. Ig Perrish’s whole universe needs its levels adjusted ever so slightly. But for that, he might have seen the truth hidden before his eyes. The makeup and effects are nicely up to snuff, and it is worth nothing that Juno Temple makes the best and eeriest corpse since Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks.

Horns might have prospered from being more surreal, more expressionistic, and more temporally disjointed. The cleverness of the far-out conceit can bear the weight of a less conventional plot structure. But judged as separately as possible from the bold, often excruciating tragedy in Hill’s book, this is a perfectly good and respectable October movie. Radcliffe gets to seethe and rage to fine effect, in contrast with the muted melancholy that Hammer’s The Woman In Black required of him. Check it out this Halloween and see if you don’t agree.