Horns is the sort of concept that just didn’t translate effectively from page to screen.
In Horns we meet Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a young hipster slacker type with one incredible thing in his life: his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). Ig and Merrin fell in love as kids and have the sort of deep romance that most people ache for. That happy story should’ve culminated in wedding bells, but unfortunately, life had much more hellish plans for the great lovers.
After a particularly bad spat with Merrin, Ig wakes in a hungover slump to find his world forever shattered. Merrin is dead, and Ig is the primary suspect, instantly transformed into a social pariah, hated (or feared) by all those who used to know him.
Things take a turn for the supernatural when Ig wakes up to discover two devilish horns protruding from his forehead. When he tries to get help, he finds that just looking at the horns makes people instantly divulge their deepest sins, or indulge in their worst desires. At first thinking himself cursed, Ig slowly but surely discovers his own desire to use this mysterious new power in order to uncover the truth about what happened to Merrin.
Based on the novel by Joe Hill, Horns brings together horror maestro Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors) and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe. The film has great high-concept potential and some strong performances, but the devil is in the execution, and Horns can’t establish a clear vision narratively or tonally, ultimately getting lost in a fog of style over substance.
Visually Aja puts together a solid piece of arthouse horror in his signature style: unflinching rawness that borders on the absurd at times. Aja’s trademark is especially effective at realizing the “horn effect” sequences on the big screen, and Horns is at its best when he gets to cut loose with that darkness and black comedy. That’s not to take away from indie character drama driving the film; Aja dabbles in everything from stage-style character dialogues to surrealist imagery mixed with religious iconography – and the result is definitely far superior to something like Piranha 3D.
The main drag of the film is in the editing. Hill’s novel is actually a surprisingly dense character study with multiple thematic threads (family, religion, love) and constant switches between points in the past and the unfolding present. Judging by the final theatrical cut of the film, it’s hard to tell whether screenwriter Keith Bunin (In Treatment) couldn’t wrangle the novel into a streamlined screenplay, or whether Aja just couldn’t edit the film down into something with more paced and purposed. Due to the past/present structure of the narrative, the mysteries aren’t mysterious, and the arc of the story is abundantly clear right from the start.
The fun should therefore be in the journey more so than the destination; but while Horns offers alternating moments of good dramatic acting and lively horror/comedy sequences (the “horn effect”), it often feels as if we’re meandering from one of Ig’s encounters to the next. When things go over-the-top religious/supernatural in the final act, the film arguably jumps the shark altogether. With very little propulsion to the journey and a lackluster arrival at final destination, Horns’ two-hour runtime can be a challenge to your patience.
Daniel Radcliffe cracks a fine American accent and showcases some strong chops to play Ig with enough depth and layers to make the unfolding chapters of the film (which imitate the book’s titled sections) interesting enough – at least in term of watching Ig discover, adapt to, and then strategically employ the power of his horns. A lot of the finer character story doesn’t get enough development in the film (Ig’s moral compass in relation to his powers), but Radcliffe, for his part, lays down that groundwork well. Juno Temple continues to have an almost ethereal quality on top of her Disney-cute appearance – and so she works well as the almost symbolic figure that Merrin is in the story. It’s a hard quality to capture, but she does it.
The supporting cast of male characters are pretty solid as well – even if their presence in the story feels stunted. Max Minghella (The Internship) does good playing a deeply layered character in Ig’s best friend/lawyer, Lee; similarly Joe Anderson (The Grey) layers his character, Ig’s older brother Terry, with enough complexity to keep things compelling. Unfortunately for both Minghella and Anderson, the full breadth of the Lee/Terry subplots (crucial to the book) are short-changed in the film, making them feel like cheap plot devices more so than compelling characters.
Other actors like Kelli Garner, Heather Graham, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan and James Remar all get to have fun playing with the absurd as victims of Ig’s horn powers, with Michael Adamthwaite getting to have particularly good fun with his character, Eric.
In the end, Horns is the sort of concept that just didn’t translate effectively from page to screen. There are a lot of things the cast and crew get right, but the film is never able to be the sum of its parts in the way needed to offer moviegoers a cohesive and compelling time at the theater.
This is purely for those who like indie-flavored films – or fans of Radcliffe acting and/or Aja’s unique brand of filmmaking. Those simply looking for some good Halloween horror? I’m afraid this film would be more trick than treat, for you.
Horns is now in theaters. It is 120 minutes long and is Rated R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, disturbing violence including a sexual assault, language and drug use.