If nothing else, ‘Horns’ can’t be faulted for lacking ambition. The quirky, Magic Realist comedy with hints of horror desperately wants to be one of those cross-genre head-trips that tosses various influences into a blender in the hopes of creating something fresh. Unfortunately, the weirdo flick is more of an act of posturing than originality.
The premise is certainly a strange one. Daniel Radcliffe stars as a small town DJ named Ig who thought he’d found the love of his life in childhood. Their relationship lasted until young adulthood when his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) was suddenly raped and murdered on the night they broke up, leaving Ig as the prime suspect. He now lives a life of paranoia, struggling to find people who believe his innocence, dodging paparazzi, avoiding local police, and trying not to get caught up in the public attacks mounted by Merrin’s bereaved father (David Morse). Then one day, Ig wakes up with two horns sprouting from his forehead. They aren’t just gigantic metaphors for his perceived guilt, but also magical horns that cause everyone around him to voice their darkest desires and ask his permission to act out their most base impulses. It’s quite the predicament for Ig to find himself in, and he uses it as a means to play detective and find out who actually murdered his beloved.
So, the film is a weird little tale to say the least, one that wants to mix and match influences, tones and techniques into some sort of horror/comedy/whodunit with delusions of grandeur about being an exploration of the nature of good and evil. Sadly, in trying to be all of those things, the movie succeeds in precious few of them. The involuntary evil confessions that the townsfolk keep spouting out play more as campy comedy than anything creepy, while the central mystery is more of a necessary contrivance to spark the story than a narrative exploration of the weighty themes.
The film’s confused tone and unfulfilled ambition fall squarely on the hands of director Alexandre Aja, who simply doesn’t have the skill set to pull off the project. He’s a talented horror technician who capably delivered bombastic spectacle in ‘High Tension’ and the ‘Hills Have Eyes’ remake. However, Aja’s distinct lack of storytelling chops was the weakest element of both movies. His sense of humor is best evident in the boobs-‘n-blood schlock of ‘Piranha 3D’, which boasts about as much subtlety as a vintage issue of Hustler magazine.
With ‘Horns’, Aja is clearly trying to ape the small town supernatural surrealism of ‘Twin Peaks’ in the same way he aped other horror flicks in his previous work. However, ‘Twin Peaks’ thrived from a light touch, boundless imagination and keen understanding of the weight of human tragedy that Aja can’t hope to muster. His take on ‘Horns’ is all surface level, reveling in big bloody spectacle, heavy-handed melodrama, and quirky humor pushed to the level of slapstick. The resulting film is still fitfully amusing and filled with surreally memorable sequences, but the story strives for more than surface level pleasures in a way that Aja is simply incapable of delivering.
Any attempt to transform the material into a good/evil parable as intended comes off as ham-fisted pretension and the material simply doesn’t boast enough big scares or laughs to work exclusively as sleazy genre fun either. That leaves ‘Horns’ awkwardly stuck in the middle between high-minded ambitions and schlocky spectacle with neither hitting hard or consistently enough to really register. Rather than thriving from juggling a variety of genre at once, ‘Horns’ sinks without delivering on any of them adequately.
It should be said that Danielle Radcliffe at least looks better than the movie around him. He delivers a full-steam attempt at a complex adult performance that almost manages to ground the movie from under Aja’s excess. While Radcliffe never quite make the mess around him work, he at least avoids embarrassing himself and shines in certain sequences.
There are plenty of interesting ideas in play in ‘Horns’, so it’s a shame that a filmmaker with a better sense of how to juggle tones and mix genre thrills with literary subtext didn’t tackle this adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel instead. Or maybe this is one of those cases in which a highly imaginative book simply wasn’t made to work on screen. Either way, Alexandre Aja’s film is a massive mess, even if it’s an interesting mess. If the concept intrigues you, the movie is certainly worth checking out provided that you’re well aware of what type of muddled art horror you’re getting yourself into.