Moving past family-friendly tales of witches and warlocks, Daniel Radcliffe embraces his inner demon for Horns, a horror-fantasy about revenge and the warped forms love can take.
Based on the wickedly entertaining novel by Joe Hill, Horns centers on Ig Perrish (Radcliffe), a young man reeling from the horrendous murder of his first and only love Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). Making matters worse, he's the prime suspect, which has turned the whole of his small town against him. But more than anything--even clearing his name--Ig wants to rain hell down on whoever raped and killed his beloved. When a pair of horns sprouts up on his head, giving him insight into people's innermost thoughts, Ig turns detective, judge, and demon.
Hill's novel crackled with a depraved sense of humor and trashy love of carnage. As the director behind such grisly horror offerings as High Tension and Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja seems a perfect pick for this adaptation. In the second act, he brings some welcome and warped levity to this grim tale by letting Ig loose on some minor characters that deserve some damnation. With a sneering smile, Ig turns a pack of barking reporters on each other, inciting a battle that's not far from Anchorman's newsman war. And like that bonkers battle, this one is a sick thrill to watch. Then, Ig inspires the worst in barflies who'd happily hang him, and so marches out of this dive like a badass with flames bursting behind him for an exhilarating visual. Yet the script from Keith Bunin implements some changes that defang Ig, and for better and worse try to make this murder tale a mystery.
In the novel, Ig is still adjusting to the bizarre powers of his horns when he is blindsided by a shocking confession that reveals who really killed Merrin. Rather than a lengthy investigation of twists and turns, the novel's version forces Ig to re-evaluate much of his life and relationships because of this terrible revelation. Understandably, the film scraps this internal struggle in favor of building up the investigation angle. It's a good idea in concept, allowing for a potentially more proactive protagonist. But its execution is sloppy. Bunin gives a couple of main characters radical makeovers to forge a red herring. But too much tinkering makes the real killer obvious for new reasons, thus this so-called mystery never deserves that distinction.
Nonetheless, it's devilish fun to see The Boy Who Lived cut loose as a demon. Yet it can be jarring to hear Radcliffe--in a careful American accent no less--spewing out a litany of f-bombs. Still, he's a good fit for a reluctant demon, his puppy dog eyes flashing from pained to wrathful. And it seems years of practice in the fantasy realm are a help in committing to this unconventional revenge drama. Unfortunately, Bunin and Aja appear desperately committed to wedging as many book details and characters into its adaptation as possible, which gives Radcliffe's performance little room to breathe. From its first frame to its last, Horns is stuffed with exposition. This includes earnestly meaningful close-ups, rambled info-heavy speeches, and(perhaps most egregious) Ig voiceover that steps us through his intentions when the film can't be bothered to slow down and develop them.
The supporting cast is competent. Heather Graham sparkles as a trashy waitress willing to lie to get on the news. Her pushed up breasts, bright red lips, teeny uniform and long blond hair make her a great fit for a horror bimbo due a grisly comeuppance. Joe Andersen quivers with nerves as Ig's brother Terry, which suits. Kelli Garner is bubbly and tragic as the overlooked Glenna. And Juno Temple is once more a lovely-to-look-at dream girl, though she's given little else to do here. However, Max Minghella as Ig's best friend/defense attorney Lee Tourneau is a jarring bit of casting. He's placid for much of the film, and when the final act demands Lee to break from his veneer of calm control, it feels so out of place that one might think we've veered into a dream sequence.
Bunin's drastic changes from the novel are clearly meant to streamline a plotline that was tangential and a struggle that was often internal. It was a good instinct. But these numerous revisions cause bizarre collisions that culminate in a finale that book readers will find familiar yet unexpected. Unfortunately, this isn't a good thing. Those unfamiliar with the story will likely see the ending as having gone off the rails in a sloppy final showdown.
Essentially, Horns was a bit of a disappointment. There are moments where Aja creates captivating scenes. His slick sensibility and gift for haunting cinematography are evident. Winking production design peppered with devils and snakes amps up the feel of fate and religious fantasy. Sun-dappled pink bodies writhing in the midst of tree house lovemaking offers a moment of visual pleasure and emotional relevance. Conversely, nightmarish montages, ghastly violence and dare-you-to-look-away monster makeup sizzle with a thrilling sense of danger. But the filmmakers have overstuffed and overcomplicated this narrative, leaving little room to relish in this world of fallen angels and vengeful demons.
The final battle of the film is less Ig versus Merrin's killer, and more the story's irreverent and pitch-black sense of humor against the filmmaker's earnestness to forge ahead with the convoluted plot. Fans of horror and of Radcliffe will have some reason to celebrate, and Horns delivers some soaring moments for both. The book's readers will be less lucky. As for me, I'm left wondering why Aja couldn't have had more fun with this demon's tale. He's made a movie that is twisted and entertaining. But with these pieces, it could have been so much more. More daring. More fucked up. More fun.