Over the summer, murmurings of a horror film featuring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter series, The Woman In Black) slowly crept out from San Diego Comic-Con and onto the internet. The rumors were that Radcliffe, once again proving that he’s not one to shy away from risks, would take the form of a (the?) devil in a revenge/horror film based upon the 2010 novel Horns by Joe Hill and adapted by director Alexandre Aja of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. As more images and the eventual teaser were released, the truth of Horns was that it was less of a hack-and-slash picture and more like another cinematic adaptation, the 1994 film, The Crow, a supernatural tale of love wronged and vengeance sought. Though Horns has been hitting the festival circuit for quite a while, it was recently released through On-Demand services on the 3rd of this month and hits theaters nationwide on Halloween.
Radcliffe stars as Ignatius Perrish, loving boyfriend to Juno Temple’s (The Dark Knight Rises, Killer Joe, Maleficent) red-haired Merrin Williams. When Merrin is found brutally murdered, Ig becomes the prime suspect. Waking from a bender, Ig finds horns growing out of his forehead. Initially terrified by their sudden appearance, he soon learns that they come with benefits: people are very willing to tell him their darkest secrets and deepest desires and follow his commands, only to forget their conversation when he leaves. Ig isn’t sure who killed Merrin, where the horns came from, or what it all means, but he’s damned determined to find out.
On the surface, Horns works within a fairly clever supernatural framework and, when it plays to its strengths, is a fairly compelling film. I would have liked less religious reference and more literal fire and brimstone. As advertised, I expected Ig to take to his new abilities with a sense of glee as he moved from clue to clue figuring out who was ultimately behind the murder of Merrin. (Ig, himself, claims that in order to survive Hell, one must continue deeper into the fire.) Instead, a philosophical choice is presented to us – in the face of our lover’s killer, do you choose justice over vengeance? Is self-defense murder? As intriguing as this attempt at moral philosophizing is, it makes the film seem choppy and uneven. Is it trying to be the horror movie it’s advertised as or a supernatural love story? Like Ig, Horns needs to make a choice.
There are some truly compelling things going on in Horns. As the audience, we are confined to know only what Ig knows. When used properly, this is an effective tool to control story and feed us information as we follow his investigation. In some cases, it helps build tension. By playing with time, we can see the whole story in bits and pieces from various perspectives. One of the first times, we are given a flashback while Ig is under anesthesia. Later, we access other people’s memories through touch, as a manifestation of his powers. As a cinematic tool, this enables the audience to discover things in a way that makes it seem as though Ig is learning of them for the first time, even if he’s just reliving a memory. However, the frequency and length of the memories tend to bring the forward momentum of Ig’s current/present story to a grinding halt. Ig is the curiosity. His is the story we want to know, but in order to understand his pain, we need to know Merrin…and here is where things get a little allegorical.
As played by Juno Temple, Merrin is a wood nymph, a mythical creature who lives in and protects the woods. She is a protector and caretaker. All we learn about Merrin is that she loves Ig, loves their treehouse, and believes in God. Beyond that, she’s a cutout character. We don’t know her motivations or her desires. Her existence is merely to die, therefore manifesting a story to be told. The town they live in is named Gideon, for the infamous judge in the Old Testament, while our hero, drives a Gremlin and gets named for a saint who martyred himself. Interestingly, his horns bring with them the power to cut through lies to any person’s dark truth, the ability to control snakes, and increased healing. These are but a few sprinklings of friction representing what could be perceived as a battle between natural magic (nature/woods and love/innocence) and religion (heaven/hell and good/evil).
Ultimately, the film is enjoyable, but left me unsatisfied. As an avid reader, I’ve come to tell when cinematic adaptations are adjusted to fit the medium and it feels as though Horns suffers from this. Why does Ig grow the horns? Is the treehouse more significant than they let on? Is he the Devil or the approximation of a natural reaction to the destruction of nature? With all of the religious references – in the symbolism, character names, even the town itself – I assumed that Horns would be more than it is. There is rarely a perfect adaptation from print to cinema, and Horns seems to be missing some key pieces; it’s quite nearly fascinating, but can’t quite commit to one aspect of a genre over another. If you’re looking for a fright, I can’t recommend this for Halloween viewing, but if you enjoy a love story with a supernatural twist, give Horns a chance.
Available On-Demand today through most digital services.
In theaters nationwide starting Friday, October 31st.
Final Score: 3 out of 5