by Lee Purvey
Exotic snakes in the Pacific Northwest? Telepathy? A magical crucifix? (Not to mention the titular headgear.) Ig Perrish (played with either good humor or total cluelessness by Daniel Radcliffe) can’t believe it either, spluttering his way through Alexandre Aja’s Horns with an enthusiastic incredulity perhaps only rivaled by that of the audience—and most frequently expressed in an unprintable exclamation that shares its initials with the World Taekwondo Federation. Indeed, Horns is a weirdly fascinating film, if more as audacious trainwreck—somehow managing to work preteen love, religious allegory, David Bowie, and disembowelment by boa constrictor into the same narrative arc—than compelling cinema. The viewer’s reaction, however, is likely to echo Ig’s favorite phrase.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Producers: Alexandre Aja, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Cathy Schulman
Writers: Keith Bunin, Joe Hill (novel)
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Music: Robin Coudert
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, Heather Graham, David Morse, Michael Adamthwaite, Nels Lennarson, Jay Brazeau, Alex Zahara, Kendra Anderson
Premiere: September 6, 2013 — Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 31, 2014
US Distributors: Dimension Films, RADiUS-TWC
We meet Ig at his rock bottom. A sincere and seemingly good-hearted—if somewhat naive—young man, Ig finds himself the pariah of his tiny Cascadian community following the grisly murder of his longtime girlfriend Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), of which he is the primary suspect. Although Keith Bunin (who adapted Joe Hill’s 2010 novel of the same name) and Aja (whose directorial credits include the redux The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D) largely neglect to convey many concrete details of the criminal investigation, it seems like the prospects are not exactly sunny for Ig’s defense, which is being helmed by his lifelong friend Lee Tourneau (Max Minghella). That is until one morning, following a long night of self-medication, when the protagonist wakes up to find a set of horns sprouting from his temples—which spiky accoutrement, it quickly becomes clear as he wanders the town, have endowed him with certain supernatural powers.
This first act, with its playfully original premise, actually carries some darkly humorous energy. As Ig encounters more and more locals who are not only unphased by his diabolical appearance, but seem invariably compelled to divulge to him (and frequently act on) their ugliest secrets and desires, it becomes clear that the distraught protagonist has entered a different world altogether, equal parts Kafka and Liar Liar. In a typical example, Ig discovers that the prosecution’s key witness—a waitress played with characteristic zaniness by the perennial Heather Graham—has completely invented her testimony solely for the chance to appear on TV. Through these experiences, Ig begins to discover the ways in which the entire community is implicated in some form of evil—to varying degrees of dramatic relevance—including those closest to him.
But Horns is not finally interested in assertions of humanity’s amorality and, while these surreal episodes possess a certain charm in their own right—Ig’s unrequited admirer Glenna’s (Kelli Garner) deadpan plea for his permission to eat an entire box of donuts is a highlight—the narrative gimmick lacks legs. Aja and company quickly abandon it for the comparatively sturdy turf of romantic melodrama.
We are thus subjected, over the film’s bulky middle section, to the long backstory of Ig and Merrin’s relationship, complete with a cast of child actors undertaking various Goonies-esque adventures and plenty of slow-motion shots of Temple frolicking in a celestial stream of sunlight (‘cause, like, it’s a memory, right?). In addition, and through a number of different characters, we are shown a series of incomplete segments from the night of Merrin’s death.
As the film jumps forwards and backwards in time, we accumulate clues that gradually begin to hint at a darker side of what Ig remembers as a fairytale romance. Meanwhile, Ig’s diabolical powers continue to grow, as he deploys telepathy and a commanding affinity for snakes (parseltongue, perhaps?) in his hunt to discover Merrin’s killer and clear his own name.
Bunin took a liberal approach to adapting Hill’s novel, especially with regards to what his script shares with the viewer and when. While the major plot points are left generally intact, Bunin’s script breaks with the novel (which, in full disclosure, I have only read summaries of) in saving the big reveal for the end, exchanging Hill’s vaguely existential meanderings for a much more straightforward murder mystery.
It’s difficult to say if a more chronologically faithful translation of Hill’s novel to the screen would have made for a more cohesive film—given the things that Bunin chose to leave out (Christian conservative political intrigue and time travel among them), it’s hard to argue with his intentions. In fact, it’s almost as if Bunin should have cut more, as Horns ultimately feels like a grab bag of the novel’s constituent parts, compiled on screen without any sense of broader narrative vision. The unfortunate result is a mystery developed so haphazardly that it lacks any sort of emotional payoff for the viewer, in either its solution or consequent acts of retribution.
Radcliffe—not too far out from his equally underwhelming Harry Potter days—does little to improve matters. It is as if he took his teary-eyed, hungover performance in the British indie band Slow Club’s 2012 “Beginners” music video and extended it for an entire feature film—one requiring the actual delivery of lines of dialogue. Radcliffe’s theatrical alcoholism and muttered expletives grow tiresome almost immediately and his co-stars rarely outdo him.
It’s finally worth remembering that the novel on which Horns is based was written by Stephen King’s son, as the whole project carries the crisp, desperate aroma of popular literature. In so many places throughout the film—in the dead-end symbolism of Ig’s transformation, in the gruesome and quickly forgotten killing of seemingly major characters, in the nearly motiveless catalytic murder—the viewer is confronted by an endless string of whats and whys. Why do the horns appear? To what purpose does Ig serve as repository for the sinful desires of his neighbors? To what broader thematic point does his transformation—or anything else, for that matter—lend itself? And most importantly: why should we care? Distracted by their own attempts to create an entertaining thriller-mystery, Aja and Bunin seem unconcerned with the answers. As a result, so are we.