HORNS (2013)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 31, 2014, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Alexandre Aja has never been a director who’s held back, and he goes for the gusto in Horns, the adaptation of Joe Hill’s popular novel. He’s got the right lead in Daniel Radcliffe, who really goes for it too.

Continuing to leave Harry Potter in the rearview mirror, Radcliffe throws himself into portraying Ig Perrish, who is first seen having a woodland idyll with his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). Then an evocative little transition brings us to Ig’s present day, when he has become the prime suspect in Merrin’s murder, with swarms of reporters massed outside his door and everyone else in town ostracizing him. Even his parents (James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan) don’t entirely seem to believe he’s innocent. Beleaguered from all sides, he abandons his faith in God—and that’s when the horns crop up.

At first, they’re just vestigial bumps on Ig’s forehead, and at the same time, local floozy Glenna (Kelli Garner), with whom Ig has just spent the night, indulges in some very strange behavior. The scene feels awkward, until a trip to the doctor’s office reveals what’s going on: The appearance of the horns causes everyone Ig encounters to reveal—and indulge in—their deepest, darkest desires. It’s a premise fraught with horrific, satiric, procedural and allegorical possibilities—and Horns, adapted by Keith Bunin, wholeheartedly embraces them all. Ig sets out to use his newfound powers of persuasion to suss out Merrin’s true killer, while they compel those he meets to engage in unhinged, sometimes black-comic behavior; along the way, flashbacks to Merrin bring us closer and closer to the truth about her demise, and still more flashbacks reveal a pivotal incident from Ig’s childhood.

It’s a lot for a movie to bite off, and Aja chews it with relish. At a full two hours, Horns never drags, and the film is strewn with effectively dramatic, horrific and humorous moments (particularly, in the latter area, a bit—unfortunately spoiled by the trailer—in which Ig turns his suggestive abilities on the news jackals). Aja seems so focused on maximizing the tones of the individual scenes, though, that he doesn’t quite get them to cohere, and Horns is kind of all over the place emotionally. There are times when it feels like a couple of different movies jammed together, or perhaps there was some connective tissue in Hill’s dense book that got streamlined out in the course of translating it to the screen. There’s a sense that it could have been streamlined further, and one or two of the subplots could have been dropped for the sake of a more consistent narrative. And by the end, even though the movie has already been unrestrained in its horrors, the explosion of extreme makeup and digital FX feels a little too over-the-top.

Holding it all together, however, is Radcliffe, navigating Ig’s complicated journey with aplomb and intensity, and always engaging our sympathy, even when Ig starts letting out a little bit of the devil inside. The rest of the cast, also including Max Minghella and Joe Anderson, have mostly functional/reactive roles to play, but they play them well. Temple is radiant as a girl who may not have been quite as pure as Ig remembers her, and David Morse scores in his few scenes as Merrin’s grieving father.

Almost a character in itself is the sumptuous cinematography of Frederick Elmes, who shoots the Pacific Northwest locations for a combination of enticing, color-drenched beauty and threatening darkness that recalls his work on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. (Furthering the Lynch connection, Heather Graham turns up as a diner waitress who sees Ig’s plight as her ticket to becoming a tabloid TV star.) Just as tactile is the makeup FX work by the KNB team, which includes some showy prosthetics and gore but whose most notable achievement is the horns themselves. If they weren’t organically convincing, we wouldn’t buy into the story they compel, but they are and—due to that and the commitment of the rest of the Horns team—we do.

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