Release Date: October 29th, 2014 (UK); October 31st, 2014 (US)
Genre: Drama; Fantasy; Thriller
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella
Based on author Joe Hill’s novel of the same, Horns represents another opportunity for Daniel Radcliffe to shed his boy-wizard skin. The actor ought to be commended for selecting varied post-Potter roles that, at least from the out looking in, continue to pose different challenges: in recent years, he has played an Edwardian-era lawyer, a Beat Generation poet, and now a horn-growing murder suspect. This might be his most interesting role on paper, but not even Radcliffe’s admirable effort can save Alexandre Aja’s inconsistent adaptation.
Labelled a killer by many in his community, Ig Perish (Radcliffe) wakes up one morning to discover a pair of bulging discs protruding from his forehead. The swollen abnormalities eventually evolve into manic-looking devil horns which, despite Ig’s best efforts, cannot be remove. Bereft of answers, he tries to get on with his life in as normal a manner as possible, and this mainly involves conferring with childhood mate and legal counsel Lee (Max Minghella). Only, those around Ig don’t quite follow suit.
The tone at the beginning is almost wholly comedic. Animal horns fully realised, whenever a mournful Ig finds himself in the company of others, people start acting horrendously: a mother vehemently denounces her young daughter’s fairly innocent behaviour; a receptionist spits vulgarities in the presence of a child; and a doctor yearns for drugs, only not the healthy kind. Yet it all feels forced. The aloof ambience doesn’t really have a foundation, spawning with no support. Why are people acting abominably? Why does Ig have horns? And if we must: who killed girlfriend Merrin (played by a seriously short-changed Juno Temple)?
The latter question is the one that instigates the film’s goings-on, but it isn’t necessarily the one that drives the piece. Horns doesn’t really have a central pivot point as far as the narrative goes. Instead, there a few floating plot strands, none of which are amply examined. Most time is spent disputing the reality of Ig’s jagged head attire; there is an ongoing debate surrounding whether the horns actually exist, or if they are simply a figurative manifestation of guilt. See, not everyone is privy to the mini antlers, and the presumption therefore is that they can only cast a spell on immoral folk: “Maybe the horns just don’t work on good people?”
It’s a premise that has potential, as evidenced by the book’s success, but director Aja struggles to maintain a settled tone, nonchalantly jumping around from dark comedy to revenge-thriller to grotesque horror. This hampers events on-screen and distracts us. You get the sense a straightforward crime-mystery would have been more palatable — the oddness, the tonal inconsistency, is too isolating. It also hurts Ig; he gets caught up in the film’s vacillating tonal underbelly, cracking jokes one minute and weighed down by despair the next. Radcliffe affords his character a degree of watchability, but it is tough to sympathise with a wimpy and agitated protagonist.
Aja is aiming, it seems, for a 21st century hipster-ish Twin Peaks. Heather Graham appears as a waitress wearing bubblegum-red lipstick and cream -pink overalls. If that is not enough, at one point the camera pulls away from a band playing in a club, the background aquarium-blue in colour and the atmosphere red-tinted. Though, by then you’ve probably already loaded up disc one of the Twin Peaks box set. Whereas David Lynch’s mesmeric concoction — both TV series and film — bore elements of genuine horror and hazy addiction (not to mention its band of universally compelling characters), this succumbs to a disorientating factor that it never shakes. Horns needs a Horne.
We get a Scream citation in the form of a doting detective, short hairdo and moustache combo invoked, but sadly it ain’t circa-1996 David Arquette. Even though there is always room for peer admiration, the film gets too caught up in saluting other, frankly better, horror instalments and inevitably misses its own creative train as a result. When Horns does try to chisel out original content it makes a host of unsubtle references to faith and Hell. A parade of snakes stalk Ig at one point, but on this occasion Parseltongue bites the dust.
In another underfed narrative thread, an explosive childhood flashback recalls The Butterfly Effect. Its intention, I guess, is to subsidise the edgy themes at large and suggest that violence once brought Ig and his cohorts together and now violence is in the process of tearing them apart. Had screenwriter Keith Bunin spent more time exploring how we, as a public, engage in tragedy-induced media frenzies, there might have been more for viewers to chew on. Gone Girl is a recent film that bitingly critiques how people reveal their true selves in dire moments, and it is overflowing with fascinating relevance. Admittedly, Gone Girl is also simply an all-round better film.
Horns is quite well-played in parts. A battle sequence performed to “Personal Jesus” makes very little sense yet garners a chuckle. The outing also has a laudable non-distinctive aesthetic; it could be set at any time in the last thirty years. The piece deposits its comedic purpose for something scarier later on, though it’s nothing truly frightening. It’s all just a bit grim really.