Covering a multitude of genres, this film about a man taking on the attributes of the devil is darkly entertaining.
Well-suited for its Halloween release, Alexandre Aja‘s (The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension) devilish new film, Horns, is a dark cross-genre film. Highly saturated with the colors of the Pacific Northwest and starring a 5 o’clock shadowed Daniel Radcliffe, the film is based on the novel by Joe Hill (mini-clone and son to Stephen King). With its similar setting and a heavy dose of maniacal absurdity at play, Horns has a tinge of Twin Peaks sensibility to it, but its far-too-fast pace and loosely formed mystery leave it short of such cult status. Overall, with Radcliffe in the lead and solid co-star performances, the film does still manage to intrigue and the imagery of it all will please horror fans looking for a strange Pan’s Labyrinth style scary-fantasy.
Equal parts tragic-romance, dark-comedy, and straight-up horror, Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a young man in a dark place after the recent death of his long-time girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple, seen in flashback). Harassed by the media and questioned by those closest to him, Ig maintains his innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. His lifelong best friend Lee (Max Minghella) is now a lawyer and doing his best to defend Ig during the investigation and trial. After a late-night candlelight vigil is held for Merrin by her grief-besotted father (David Morse), Ig goes on a particularly bad bender, ending up in bed with a trashy old friend, Glenna (Kelli Garner). Adding to the confusion of Ig’s life, he wakes up in her bed the next morning with something worse than an STD — horn tips are making their way out of Ig’s forehead.
After a particularly strange interaction with Glenna, who continues to ask Ig for permission to eat all her donuts, he rushes to the doctor for advice. Instead everyone he interacts with seems to want to tell him all the bad impulses and thoughts they are having. A mother in the waiting room expresses her disdain for her screaming child, the doctor asks permission to crush up some Oxycontin and snort it. Searching for respite at his parent’s home only leads to their own confessions of the grudge they hold against him for putting their lives into uproar and their doubts that he didn’t murder Merrin. Eventually Ig realizes by touching people he can see the bad things they’ve done, and an interaction with his musician brother Terry (Joe Anderson) gives Ig new insight into Merrin’s death, while also helping him realize he can use his new powers to get to the bottom of what happened to her.
As the deceased Merrin, Juno Temple manages to hold up the chemistry between her and Radcliffe in the flashback scenes. But Radcliffe’s best work in the film is definitely when he’s being evil and revenge-driven. His British sarcasm is put to good use, even though he hides the accent quite well. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes is put to great use with the film, creating some truly lovely scenes with color and light in the flashbacks that contrast with the darker present day scenes. A sometime collaborator with David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and Charlie Kaufman, he seems to get the magical reality quality these directors love so much. The only artistic note I’m not sure I entirely understand is putting much of the most frightening action in broad daylight. While still brutally gruesome at moments, the tension would have been a bit more dramatic if it had that class horror element to it.
The slight variances from the novel (which I happened to have read) are subtle and sensible, though a fault of translation, especially in horror, is that much of the tension lies within being in the mind of a villain. A perk the novel maintains over the film. The build to the film’s final reveal seems weak. Though the final showdown is formidable enough. The film’s (and to be honest, the book’s) biggest failing has to do with some padding at the end to soften the blow of how much tragedy we’re forced to endure and provide some unnecessary character motivation. It tries to justify some of the death and comes across as insensitive instead. An unnecessary afterthought that no proper horror film would ever ascribe to.
Full of language and grittiness, Horns suffers from what most multi-genre films do, a bit of a scattered personality and an inability to do it all. But the juggling act is still an amusing thing to behold, and all of the devil jokes and imagery are just fun. Those with an appreciation for the macabre and the fantastical will appreciate the strange brew that is Horns.
Horns is out in theaters in the US October 31st, and is currently available to stream via VOD.