D: Alexandre Aja / 120m
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Juno Temple, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, David Morse, Heather Graham
Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) has earned the enmity of the small town he lives in. His longtime girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Temple) has been brutally killed in nearby woods, and everyone thinks Ig killed her. With the townsfolk threatening him at every turn, and news crews following him wherever he goes, Ig protests his innocence but is continually ignored. Even his friends and family suspect or believe he did it; only his best friend, Lee (Minghella), a lawyer, believes he’s innocent.
When a candlelit vigil is held at the place where Merrin was murdered, a drunken Ig rages against a God who could allow her to die. The next morning he awakes to find two tiny horns growing out of his forehead. Horrified, he goes to his doctor where he becomes aware of a startling side effect that the horns have brought with them: the people he encounters are compelled to tell him their darkest thoughts and desires once they’ve seen the horns. He also learns that he can persuade them to act on these desires. Using this ability he begins to visit people who knew Merrin in the hope of finding clues as to her killer’s identity – or even find them in person. Everyone reveals something about themselves that is otherwise hidden except for Lee who doesn’t see any horns at all.
Ig suffers a setback when he learns a witness has come forward to say that they saw him leave a diner with Merrin on the night she was killed. Ig knows this isn’t true, but at first he can’t think how to make the witness withdraw their statement. The arrival of a bed of snakes that he can control solves the issue but brings him no nearer to finding Merrin’s killer. It’s only when he confronts his brother, Terry (Anderson), that he begins to discover what exactly happened that night, including a fateful meeting at the diner that he had with Merrin, and which he’d forgotten.
As the clues mount up and Ig gets nearer the truth, an unexpected revelation leads to an attempt on his life. Surviving the attempt, Ig sets a trap for the killer, and in the process, learns the tragic truth about his beloved Merrin.
There’s a moment in Horns when Ig suggests that a couple of TV news reporters should “beat the shit out of each other” with an exclusive interview as the prize for the winner. What follows is a free-for-all brawl between news teams that is both funny and ferocious at the same time. It’s a perfect example of the tone of the movie, a delightfully perverse adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel that offers a mix of very dark humour and fantasy alongside a very traditional whodunnit. It’s a bold, audacious movie, encompassing romantic drama, horror, broad comedy, and childhood flashbacks to often dizzying effect. It’s also a great deal of fun.
Under the auspices of Aja, Horns is never less than riveting, its structure so cleverly constructed by screenwriter Keith Bunin that a few minor plot stumbles aside – the presence of the snakes (never properly explained), the killer’s apparent amnesia when confronted a second time by Ig – the movie grabs the attention from the outset, thrusting the viewer into Ig’s predicament with economy and style. Its greatest trick is not to make Ig instantly likeable, and while it’s no stretch to believe he’s entirely innocent, his behaviour is self-destructive and aggressive, leaving just that sliver of doubt that maybe, just maybe, he might have killed Merrin. And with a major motive introduced two thirds in, the movie still manages to throws doubts at the viewer with deliberate glee.
Radcliffe – building a quietly diverse and impressive career for himself post-Hogwarts – is the movie’s trump card, giving a well-rounded, nuanced performance that requires a lot from him as an actor. He’s more than up to the task though, and is simply mesmerising throughout, justifying entirely the decision to cast him. It’s a rich, deceptively detailed portrayal, much more resonant than we’re used to in what is ultimately a horror fantasy. There’s a scene towards the end where Ig reads a letter written to him by Merrin. The pain and anguish Radcliffe evinces, along with Temple’s perfect reading of the letter, makes the scene achingly sad to watch (and also the movie’s standout moment).
The supporting cast offer sterling support, from Garner’s turn as Ig’s would-be girlfriend Glenna, to Morse as Merrin’s heartbroken father. If there’s a weak link it’s Minghella, an actor whose features lend themselves well to looking perturbed or querulous, but who regularly struggles to persuade audiences when more convincing emotions are required. Temple continues to impress, her role in flashback as Merrin giving her another chance to shine (along with Radcliffe, she’s carving out a very interesting career for herself), and there’s a pivotal role for the underused Graham that reminds the viewer – however briefly – just how good she is.
The fantasy elements are effective, with a final transformation for Ig that is impressively handled, and the striking British Columbia locations are lensed to subtly remarkable effect by DoP (and David Lynch alumni) Frederick Elmes. Aja keeps the focus on Ig and Merrin, the true heart of the movie, and holds back on the bloodshed to a level that, while it may annoy some horror fans, is in keeping with the overall tone of the movie (that said, he can’t resist including one splatter moment). With a denouement that ups the pace and provides a satisfying conclusion to events, Horns succeeds on so many levels that it’s a very jaded viewer who will be disappointed by what the movie has to offer.
Rating: 8/10 – an above average fantasy thriller with dark comedic overtones, Horns is another daring outing from the very talented Aja; with a deep well of emotion for it to draw on, the movie succeeds in marrying a variety of disparate elements into a rewarding and gratifying whole.