When I first read up on Horns, I was a little taken aback. Daniel Radcliffe teaming up with Alexandre Aja for a horror movie? It seemed like a very odd combination on paper, but instantaneously caught my interest – not to mention the plot of the film itself. Surely something so outlandish could not possibly work, right?
The story follows Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), whose girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) has been brutally murdered. The town thinks he’s the one who did it, but Ig swears his innocence. Unfortunately, mounting evidence is starting to suggest otherwise. After one drunken evening, Ig wakes up with two horns protruding through his forehead. He is confused by their appearance, but becomes even more so after strangers, family and friends begin to confess their darkest thoughts and secrets to him. Sensing he may be able to solve Merrin’s murder himself, he sets out to discover the truth and uncover her real killer.
I never read Joe Hill’s Horns, but a quick summary of the book suggests relative newcomer Keith Bunin did a fairly adequate job translating and repurposing it for film. What he misses, and director Aja seems all too keen to gloss over, is clear character motivations. The first half of the film plays out like a really odd murder mystery as Ig stumbles around trying to figure out the truth about Merrin, while also trying to understand why he suddenly grew a pair of horns. But as he gets closer to the truth, and more characters begin piecing together what happened for him, the film slowly goes off the rails into the realm of revenge fantasy.
Horns takes so much time trying to tell you why you should care about these characters and who they are (specifically through the use of lengthy flashbacks), only to have you hate the majority of them by the end of the film. The reasoning for their actions is tepid at best, and leaves you with more questions than answers.
What also works against Horns is that any form of mystery and uniqueness found in the first half of the film, is basically thrown out completely in favour of brutal violence. Some of it is played for laughs, while other moments are played for genuine shocks. I know one particular moment is in the original novel, but the rest seems to have been amped up to the levels that Aja is more accustomed to in his films.
I was really taken aback by how different the film looked and felt versus his work in Haute Tension, Mirrors and The Hills Have Eyes. But much like the characters themselves, he sells out and goes after the easiest of horror tropes by the end. Hell, some of the more ridiculous scenes here border more on the lunacy of Piranha 3D than they do with the seriousness the film starts out with. Aja seems ill-equipped to handle these drastic tonal changes (not to mention the religious iconography), and it shows in how amateur the film so quickly becomes.
Also quite distracting are the special effects. They are ridiculously unpolished – something I hope can be better completed when the film is released in 2014. They are meant to compliment the fantastic makeup effects, but end up looking horrifically fake. Remember how awful and low-fi the effects looked in X-Men Origins: Wolverine? They are on about that level currently.
Radcliffe brings an unhinged intensity to Ig, delivering a very different performance than his work as Harry Potter. He has a childlike innocence at first, but we feel every moment as he unravels and spirals into darkness as he gets closer to the truth. While his voice and accent quiver at some of the more gut-wrenching scenes, his gaze and fervor never waver.
Ig goes through tremendous pain, both physical and emotional, and Radcliffe makes every single moment look and feel more painful than the next. It is a very adult performance for the young thespian, but it is one that showcases what he has learned as an actor, and easily rises above the wishy-washy material. Expect a lot of parents to be angry and disgusted about what the character says and does in the film (especially in regards to one gratuitous sex scene), but be enthralled to know that Radcliffe is willing to take on such daring roles this early in his career.
While the film is very much the Radcliffe show, the supporting cast all do very well in their roles. Joe Anderson and Max Minghella are of particular note, playing Ig’s brother Terry and best friend Lee. They complement Radcliffe’s performance quite well, bringing out his best work, and help add to the allure and mystery of the film. They are subject to some of the film’s most bothersome and questionable scenes, but you would never know it based on how steadfast they remain in their roles.
Even better is Temple as Merrin, who is dead right from the very beginning. She is never afforded any real deep moments, remaining a distant and fading memory for the majority of the film. But she is near brilliant as the object of Ig’s dreams, giving a heartfelt and emotionally baring performance. Her work here is truly devastating, but only continues to prove what a wonderfully talented actress she has quickly become.
Overall, Horns is a very mixed bag. The film itself is pretty messy and a near tonal disaster. But the performances, especially from Radcliffe and Temple, are all very well done. It is easily one of Aja’s better works, but it is a flawed one that could have easily been improved with better plotting and a stronger second half. Blame the original book, but the changes suggest a disconnect that could have been rectified.
A daring and intense performance from Daniel Radcliffe allows Horns to rise above its messy tonal shifts and silly second half.