Being the horror nerd I am, few films had me waiting on edge for a screening invite more than Horns. How does one not pop horror wood at the thought of pairing Daniel Radcliffe and Alexandre Aja? Radcliffe has been pulling an Elijah Wood since graduating Hogwarts, opting for horror films like The Woman In Black or eccentric character pieces like Kill Your Darlings, while Aja is responsible for some killer horror features as both writer and producer over the last few years, so who better to attempt a darkly dramedic (part drama/part comedy), largely character-driven Joe Hill novel adaptation than him?
Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, prime suspect in the murder of his ex-girlfriend Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) on the night of their breakup. Without any evidence concrete enough to prove his innocence indefinitely, Ig depends on his public-defending best friend Lee (Max Minghella) to build a solid case, but all he truly wants is for swift justice against Merrin’s real killer. After some extremely difficult nights, Ig wakes up to find a pair of horns growing from his head that force people to spill their darkest secrets, and the boy sees a perfect opportunity for some demonic sleuthing. Going around town, citizen to citizen, Ig starts piecing together a puzzle ripe with treachery, innocent bloodshed and despicable acts, as people start to embrace their sinister side in Ig’s presence.
There’s plenty of “fun” to be had here as Ig’s bewilderment turns into calculated chaos, embracing the devilish horns that are the torturous key to unleashing all the pent-up aggression inside – mainly due to Radcliffe’s grief-stricken performance. Horns is a sad romantic tale at heart, but also a twisted horror comedy in a broader sense, tasking its lead actor to balance both elements during his “investigation.” There are hints of a hellish film noir slickness as Ig narrates all his thoughts while driving around collecting information and working out clues in synchrony with his audience, but protruding horns and anarchic actions stir up heaps of trouble amidst what seems to be the easiest interrogations imaginable.
All of the funnier moments of Horns present themselves when Ig is asked questions by random people hypnotized by his persuasive headgear, as not only do characters confess their sins, but they also ask for Ig’s permission to carry out deeply repressed actions – whether it be a self-loathing female stuffing her face with doughnuts or news anchors beating themselves senseless while competing for an exclusive interview with Ig. Those subconscious sicknesses aren’t even the tip of the iceberg though, as there’s no reason to spoil the best deep-seeded filthiness. Let’s just say though that one involves a screaming child while another comes out of two officers of the law. These moments are irrationally hilarious, but they also grease our gears a bit when personal laughter turns into a recognition of our own muffled mindspeak, and how reality might react if we ever blurted out some of the recurring twisted thoughts that pollute our own minds. What, you’ve never let your mind wander down a dark, depraved path every now and then? It’s only human – but Horns gives us the opportunity to live in such a unabashedly honest world where self-indulgent chaos becomes as prominent as socially agreeable pleasantry.
On the flip side, Horns is a Shakespearean tragedy about the crushing realization of humanity’s disgusting nature (e.g. truths voiced by Ig’s parents), interwoven with a gut-wrenching crime that leaves one heartbroken man destroyed, accused and alone. Hiding behind empty whiskey bottles, Ig’s depressed nature channels the strong, loving bond that Radcliff builds inside his character. So many emotions come pouring out of Ig, whether he’s numbing himself with alcohol or breaking down in tears, in a performance that brings a tragically romantic undertone to a movie comparing angels and demons. For a horror movie, there’s a tremendous amount of heart-tugging on the part of Daniel Radcliffe, who immerses himself in bleak, unflinching darkness – a place actors shouldn’t excitedly seek. Ig isn’t the Devil. Instead, he’s a crusading soul who’s accepted a sin worth living with, and it just so happens that an angelic mindset isn’t suitable for the task at hand.
Coming from the cinematic mind of Alexandre Aja, there’s a definite feel that the director’s adaptation wanders a bit outside his comfort zone. Known for gory, brutal horror movies like High Tension and Piranha 3D, Horns is a character study through and through, until Radcliffe’s demon form rears its head and the finale caps itself with a jolting bit of explosive violence. That’s only one powerful scene though, as Aja otherwise is directing messy breakups, comedic bantering and Ig’s journey, none of which require death and destruction.
A particularly psychedelic scene between Ig and his brother (Joe Anderson) lets Aja play around with visual horrors, feeling a bit more like home, and the auteur does stage a few revealing shots, such as a horned Ig walking out of a flaming bar in a cloud of smoke (as if he’s waltzing through Hell’s door). But overall, Aja’s vision feels a bit shaky considering the more pedestrian material. Thankfully, Radcliffe saves most scenes through sheer screen presence alone, aided by transfixed co-stars who either berate or confuse Ig. Still, you can tell Aja misses having dramatic death scenes to break up long spells of narrative dialogue.
Horns is both tragic and beautiful, possessing surface-value metaphors along with a deeper, more spiritual connection rooted in loss and redemption. Daniel Radcliffe stuns as a devilish detective ready to set his small town ablaze in the name of lost love, as Ig Perrish conquerors demons brought forth in the name of Juno Temple’s innocent victim, Merrin Williams. Their bond is unbreakable, and his intentions are of the purest nature, but sometimes it takes a “bad” man to get the job done. Horns blurs the lines between “good” and “evil,” as we sympathize with the pure intentions of a horned character holding a pitchfork while shrouded in hissing snakes – the unlikeliest of angels.
Horns sometimes feels like a uncomfortable departure for Alexandre Aja, but Radcliffe's demonic performance strikes a devilishly indulgent balance between dark comedy and romantic tragedy that saves the day.