Everything about Horns is broad: the comedy, the horror, the acting, the suspense, the romance, and the gore. It works far too hard to please, playing to the rafters when it should be more focused on the people in the front row. All the elements are in place for a great genre bending movie but each element is so undisguised and so damn on the nose that Horns winds up as a moderately entertaining but mostly mediocre piece of work. I’m not saying that a movie where Harry Potter turns into the Devil needed to be totally understated but in this flick’s case, a little subtlety would have gone a long way.
Based on the excellent novel by Joe Hill and directed by Alexandre Aja, the movie focuses on the tormented Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe). His angelic girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) was murdered six months ago and he is the prime suspect even though the police have been unable to find any evidence to convict him. Even his parents and brother seem to think he’s guilty. His only ally is his lawyer and childhood friend Lee (Max Minghella). One night he gets drunk, has a one night stand with a barmaid, and wakes up to find a pair of horns growing out of his head. He quickly discovers that these horns give him the ability to make people spill their darkest secrets. Viewing himself as a dark avenging angel, he decides to use them to track down Merrin’s real killer.
It’s an intriguing, irreverent premise that was used to full effect in Joe Hill’s novel but the movie seems almost afraid of it. It’s as if the producers told Aja, “Listen, enough people already think Harry Potter is the Devil so try to make this material as inoffensive as possible.” So instead of exploring complex themes about the nature of evil and what we can gain from it like the novel did, the movie simply presents the events of the book without having any opinion about them. And it exploits every opportunity to make a dumb joke about people’s dark secrets. In the novel, it was chilling when people told Ig these horrible things. Here, all the disturbing confessions are played for laughs and that gets real old real fast. Also, any song that you think might be on the soundtrack is on the soundtrack, including “My Own Personal Jesus”. As I said, subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit.
We know we’re in trouble right from the opening scene, which is quickly revealed to be a flashback of better times for Ig and Merrin. Their romance is so perfect it’s totally unbelievable. We learn later of some troubled times but their climactic fight scene plays like something out of a Nicolas Sparks movie, complete with lines like, “ARE YOU REALLY DOING THIS TO US?” and “BUT WE WERE SUPPOSED TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER!” It’s soap opera bullshit and hard to take seriously.
The central mystery is another problem. The novel didn’t keep the identity of the killer hidden for long and spent a good portion exploring that character’s demented psyche. It was probably the most frightening section of the book but it’s excised from the movie completely. And the film waits until the last twenty minutes to tell us who the killer is even though anyone who has ever seen a movie will have figured it out from the second that character arrives on screen. I spoke with someone who hadn’t read the novel and they couldn’t believe how obvious it was.
Radcliffe’s hunt to find the killer is questionable too. He doesn’t use the horns to do much besides go into bars, walk up to patrons, and say, “well, what do you know?” Guy is not going to win detective of the year with methods like that. He also takes revenge on the wrong people. There’s a particularly unpleasant scene where he uses his devil powers to make snakes torment a waitress (Heather Graham, yes you read that right) who lied to the police about his whereabouts the night his girlfriend got killed. It seems like a waste of time for him to be messing with some fame obsessed imbecile when he should be out…oh you know…finding the actual killer. The scene feels like little more than an excuse for him to show off his snake powers and comes awful close to being misogynistic.
When he finally does find the killer you want to smack him for not realizing it sooner. The movie then turns into a gore-fest with people getting their heads split open, snakes strangling people to death, and Radcliffe making the full transformation into Satan himself. That’s not a spoiler by the way. Promotional photos for the film gave that away months ago. So yes, Radcliffe goes Full Satan but Horns doesn’t go Full Walrus. What the hell do I mean by that? Let me remind you of a little movie called Tusk where Michael Parks turned Justin Long into a walrus. Now, Tusk had its problems but it also had the courage of its convictions. That walrus transformation was terrifying and hilarious because it was so utterly bizarre and off the map. It wasn’t a movie for everybody, nor should it have been. If Tusk had gone the Horns route, the walrus transformation would not have been gruesome at all. Whatever gore was present would have been played for laughs and made to look deliberately fake. It would have been very careful not to offend anybody and would have stopped at the walrus transformation. We wouldn’t have gotten that demented walrus fight and the villain would have been vanquished in a boring and obvious way. That’s what Horns goes for; it takes dark material that is not meant for everyone and tries to make it palpable for the masses. As a result, people not used to this kind of material will still find it too weird and offbeat while those excited for it will be annoyed by how safe it is.
None of this is the fault of the actors though. Radcliffe is particularly good as Ig and seems more than willing to go down some very dark paths. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t support him. Juno Temple does what she can with such a one-note character. Max Minghella is effective in the thankless role of the best friend and the underrated Joe Anderson makes Ig’s brother into a complex, tortured soul even though his role is markedly diminished from the novel. Also, if you’ve read the book, there is some fun to be had in watching such a faithful adaptation. It cuts things out but doesn’t add anything (except for that dopey waitress scene if memory serves) and since the location is perfect and the actors well-cast, it’s sort of enjoyable to see the pages of the novel brought to life. You’ll just have to deal with the fact that the movie doesn’t have a clue why it brought the pages to life.
All in all, Horns is not a terrible movie. It’s just a disappointment. If Aja had been willing to explore some controversial themes and ideas, it would have been more successful. It may not have reached a wide audience but what idiot would have expected a story like this to? In a year where we’ve gotten some truly daring genre pictures like The Guest, Blue Ruin, Tusk, Cold in July, and Honeymoon, Horns is low man on the totem pole. It knows the words but not the music.