It would be easy to categorize Horns as a YA take on an a standard adult horror concept. The foundation for Alexandre Aja’s film is a book by Stephen King’s kid, Joe Hill (perhaps best known for his novels, Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2), and yet all the more mature ideas and concepts have seemingly been tossed aside for a hipster love story which turns on faith, fallen angels, and the various symbolism one can carve out of horns, crosses, snakes, and fire. In fact, had Aja simply focused on these obvious allusions, and backed away a bit from the quasi-paranormal Pacific Northwest love story between our hero, Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) and his comely gal pal Merrin (Juno Temple), we’d have more terror and less Twilight.
Still, this is a good movie. Not a great one, and one lacking significant scares, but entertaining and engaging, albeit in starts and spurts. In fact, this is much more a fantasy than a typical genre offering, Aja shifting tone as readily as we’re reminded of the dreary Seattle backdrop. Our story centers on a young man named Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) who is accused of killing his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Temple) and for the last year or so, the police have been trying to put together a case against him. With the help of his best friend/lawyer, Lee (Max Minghella), he’s avoided prosecution, though the constant pressure from the media, and Merrin’s father (David Morse) is starting to wear on him.
One night, after a drunken tryst with local bad girl Glenna (Kelli Garner), Ig wakes up to find horns growing from his head. Not only that, but his transformation also causes those he comes in contact with to instantly begin confessing their deepest, darkest desires – and even acting on them. Ig decides to use this newfound ability to find out who really did the deed. All clues lead to an arrogant waitress (Heather Graham), our hero’s drug-addled musician brother (Joe Anderson), and the awful and ambiguous events that occurred one dark and stormy Seattle night.
For someone who usually embraces the darker, more devious side of the genre, I find Horns refreshingly revisionist. It doesn’t always succeed, but when it does, it helps redefine what a horror movie can and cannot be. It’s akin to what Sam Raimi did with the Evil Dead trilogy, or where directors like Dario Argento and his protégé Michele Suave used to tread. Using recognizable tropes, Aja blends approaches, offering something that’s both eerie and enigmatic at the same time. This is both fairytale and fractured whodunit, a thriller where the relationship between Ig and Merrin is far more important than the finalé denouement.
The trouble again is that the frequent shifts in tone can be jarring, asking us to except high brow satire one moment and lowest common denominator gore the next. Yet Aja depends on his star to salvage any stylistic whiplash, and Radcliffe succeeds. Adopting a convincing American accent, the artist formerly known as Harry Potter continues to peel away layers of his former franchise persona, giving Ig a nice level of callousness, anger, and desperation on top of his madly in love man unfairly accused ideal.
The law enforcement stuff seems frivolous, a way of inviting danger into an arena that really doesn’t have an everyday source of menace and, yes, a man suddenly sprouting Satan’s accessories on the top of his head should seem like enough of a threat, but thanks to the added prize of prying into people’s personal secrets, Horns far too fun to fear.
Besides, we need all the symbolism to show a modern post-modern millennial viewer that there is something more here than a potential cosplay concept. Horns is jam-packed with intentional (and unintentional) allegory. Ig, before his transformation, is on the… horns of a dilemma. He is viewed as evil in his community, and now he’s literally personified same. His girlfriend’s name is instantly recognizable to any fan of The Exorcist, and the last act inclusion of snakes (Ig’s saviors and minions), goes right back to the Bible for its basis. Heck, there’s even a diner called Eve’s.
Without instantly recognizing it, this film becomes far more religious than you’d imagine. There are several conversations where faith and God are debated and denied. Some of this can be found in Hill’s source material. Other elements come from Aja’s own background.
Of course, a mystery only rises and falls on the killer’s identification, and this is another place where Horns stumbles. Initially, we believe the townspeople. Radcliffe’s Ig seems like the kind of guy who, lost in a wave of personal pain (and a few bottles of liquor), could conceivable kill someone.
Then the red herrings start to stink like day old cod at the fishmongers. First, it’s Ig’s drug addled brother (Anderson), and up until the final reveal, he has all the earmarks of an “accidental” murderer. There’s also hints that a jealous Glenna or an over-protective Dad — or even Ig’s odd father — could have done it. But then Aja finds himself in the place that so many filmmakers do: he runs through his suspect pool, establishing innocence or alibi, leaving only our lead and one other as the possible perpetrator. At this point, we’ve basically bought into Ig’s lack of motive.
Still, for a genre that rarely deviates from the cyclical and the tried and true (torture porn this time around, ’70s throwback terror another), Horns is a welcome bit of weirdness. It provides a perfect showcase for its star, gets its multiple messages across in fine fashion, and provides the kind of mythologizing that easily hooks younger fans to get involved in the horror realm. Perhaps that’s why it feels so betwixt and twilight-y.
Indeed, there’s a true fan-fiction fantasy feel to Horns. Luckily, Aja’s more aggressive side gets a chance to shine, now and then.