It’s often said the Lord works in mysterious ways. But what about the Devil? Oh sure, the forces of Hell are usually depicted in movies as horrific tools for ensnaring souls and abandoning all hope, but surely this newfound sympathy for the Devil in our post-Rolling Stones world can be a two-way street? That certainly seems to be the case in Horns, the new Alexandre Aja movie starring Daniel Radcliffe in his least Harry Potter styled role yet. Indeed, he plays one half of a love story so pure that it even warms hearts in Hell. Of course, at those temperatures, this can lead to some burning consequences too.
As much an R-rated fairy tale as a straight-ahead horror film, Aja casts a devilishly hypnotic spell throughout Horns with the most surprising ingredient yet from the pulp provocateur: humanity. As a result, Horns plays as his best film to date, and works as terrific holiday entertainment for those looking for a little bit of fun this weekend without the desperations of a Ouija board.
Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a troubled kid from the wrong side of the docks in a picturesque Oregon town, and he only has thing to live for in this life: Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). She’s the devout and lovely redheaded girl he met as a child in a Sunday church service, and she always carries her cross with her when she visits Ig in their treehouse getaway from town, lodged deep in the woods. She was everyone’s favorite thing about Ig…until she died—raped and beaten to death right outside of their treehouse retreat. Everyone assumes that Ig did it.
Thus when Ig is told that he should pray for his soul, he instead says he’d gladly sell it to the Devil if it means he could have revenge on the man who did slaughter the love of his life. The next day, he seems to get his wish when he wakes up with a pair of wicked horns that do more than just make a fashion statement—they cause everyone to admit their deepest sins and most hidden vitriol, including Ig’s own parents, and they make every sinner open to the most ominous of suggestions.
Most of Aja’s films to date have been grisly guts and guffaws remakes like The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. They often feature familiar set-pieces that are reworked for maximum carnage, and a fair amount of entertainment. And yet, there tended to be a noticeable simplicity inherent that always felt like the filmmaker was using it as a brace as he found his filmic voice. That voice is now quite clear in Horns, even if it may still need some refinement. As his most ambitious film to date, Aja has adapted Joe Hill’s novel of the same name to create a quixotic story of doomed love with a supernatural edge—allowing Aja’s expected subversion and black comedy to emerge as finely as those ever-growing horns on Radcliffe’s head.
Early in the film, Ig is understandably horrified at the devil horns on his forehead, and he attempts to have them sawed off at the doctor’s office. While there, he learns almost too quickly that they are a visual truth serum after he gets the doctor’s secretary to gleefully ask for permission to curse out a young woman whose bratty child is acting particularly demonic. The mother similarly confesses that she wants to leave her child on the side of the road, while the kid tells Ig that she is planning to steal some matches and light mommy’s bed on fire.
Coming at audiences sideways, the movie allows the greater clouds of darkness that come in later, as seen when Ig starts carrying a pitchfork and keeping a pet snake around his neck, to feel like an anticipated storm, instead of delayed satisfaction.
However, the strength of Horns is that its “whodunit” narrative allows for a relatively mature story to be told through the sheen of a storybook glow. Throughout the movie, Ig recalls all the important people in his life, including an older brother (Joe Anderson), who is much more his parents’ preferred child, and a best friend who saved his life when they were kids (Max Minghella). He even has neighborhood ties to the overweight kid who has become his dogged police officer pursuer (Michael Adamthwaite). Any of them could be a suspect, and though you’ll almost certainly figure out who the murderer is before Ig does, they all give this macabre flight of fancy a bit of grounding, particularly when Ig gets his family to tell him what they really think of him.
Unfortunately, these shadings can be somewhat jarring and uneven with the film’s more devious sequences. In a movie that features Heather Graham cameoing as a narcissistic diner waitress who falsely incriminates Ig so that she can get a reality show gig after the trial, having such threads juxtaposed with Ig trying to help his brother overcome his drug addiction can be asymmetrical as Radcliffe’s sometimes-spotty American accent.
On the whole Radcliffe does a solid job of burying the Boy Who Lived with the body of his dead girlfriend, and offers up an earnest performance of both confusion and righteous cruelty. Nevertheless, the casting is obviously self-aware, and the actor sometimes struggles with his own expectations after spending his whole childhood in front of the camera. Minghella, meanwhile, is legitimately awkward and uncomfortable in a part that appears fairly underwritten.
But overall, the ensemble works, particularly David Morse as the father of Merrin, who in a few scenes displays such varied levels of anguish and outrage that a boy he essentially helped raise could possibly have killed his daughter. That girl, seen always in flashback, is played with the appropriate wistfulness and doe-eyed sex appeal that this material calls for by Ms. Temple.
Ultimately, what Horns conjures up is an engrossing yarn that walks the line between melodrama and horror, finding a strange netherworld in the middle where Ig, Merrin, and the Devil can live intrusion-free from societal concerns and supposed tonal requirements—where a movie about childhood losses can also be the one where a devilish Daniel Radcliffe can recommend to reporters that they beat each other to death for an exclusive interview. I doubt any of the cast needs horns to enjoy that scene. For a Halloween-timed viewing, and likely well after for the late night dorm room set, Horns’ idyllic hellscape is certainly worth visiting.