Horror is rarely my thing anymore, but Horns was a different, rarer event for me: a movie based on a novel I’d actually read. Checking out the original book was a natural leap since I was a fan of author Joe Hill’s comics series Locke & Key. I was also curious to see how his writing style compared to his famous father’s. (Summed up: Hill’s dark, rural underside doesn’t have his dad’s grandiloquent flourishes, but his lean-‘n’-mean approach is pretty propulsive nonetheless.)
My reaction to the novel was a bit mixed, but I felt compelled to check out the movie version anyway — partly out of curiosity, and partly because nearly three months had passed since I watched any 2014 releases (my last theater trip was for Guardians of the Galaxy) and I’ve been itching to see something new. And Horns happened to be available On Demand before its U.S. theatrical release on Halloween, so I figured why not. ‘Twas the season.
…and I have to mention it stars the Daniel Radcliffe, the Man Who Lived. That part’s important to some, I suppose.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Radcliffe is Ig Perrish, a small-town DJ wrongfully accused of the murder of his longtime girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple, whom I barely remember from Atonement). Naturally he didn’t do it, but someone had to. His close acquaintances may or may not be his suspect list — including his brother Terry (Joe Anderson from Across the Universe); his best friend and defense attorney Lee (The Social Network‘s Max Minghella); another childhood friend-turned-cop (voice artist Michael Adamthwaite) known mostly as “Meatbag” because he’s fat and therefore requires a humiliating nickname (SIGH); and female childhood friend Glenna (Kelli Garner, recently cast to lead Lifetime’s Marilyn Monroe movie). Or maybe one of the extras in the background killed Merrin. Sure.
Before this turns into just another riff on The Fugitive, Ig has a bigger problem on his hands: after royally blaspheming against God for all the awful things that happened to him, Ig wakes up one morning with horns on his head. Somehow they come with the power to make people tell him their darkest sins and urges (even when he doesn’t want them to), and the power to make them give in to those urges if he grants permission. For worse or for worst, Ig is cast out and condemned as a new Devil incarnate.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Also milling around town: Heather Graham as a waitress who’ll do anything for fifteen minutes of fame; established pros James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan as Ig’s parents, who become his worst nightmare under the horns’ influence; and the reliable David Morse as Merrin’s bereaved father, furious and righteous at once.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Ig more or less learns that everyone he knows, even the family who supposedly have his back, deep down are base sinners with secrets they dare not tell and temptations they ought to deny…but when they think they can get away with it, if they’re given permission from within or without, they’ll go way overboard if left unchecked. That’s not too far removed from reality, where we don’t have a super-powered scapegoat to blame.
Ig meets a couple of exceptions resistant to his power, one of them being Merrin’s dad. He understandably flies into a wounded father’s rage in the presence of his baby’s alleged killer, but he otherwise seems the saintliest man in town. It’s refreshing to know not everyone in town is a total monster.
There’s one slight difference between the novel and the movie that results in a more provocative meaning. In the novel (if memory isn’t failing me — I read it four years ago) Ig is explored further in depth as a fairly flawed loser before Merrin’s murder, so for the townspeople it wasn’t much of a stretch to buy into the idea of him as a murderer. In the movie, they seem to turn on him solely on the media’s word. That’s a more cynical take on our world today, but I can’t fault it for accuracy.
The first half of the film strikes a fair balance between the implications of living in a broken world filled with sinners who use their free will poorly, and the consequences of disobeying a God whose greatest promises foretell what happens in the world after this one. The movie veers off-point in its final act when Ig realizes that doing the right thing will lose the movie, and only by giving in fully to the Dark Side can he hope to save the day. I can imagine some viewers cheering at that culmination, but I wasn’t one of them.
Nitpicking? I liked horror a lot more in my youth than I do nowadays. There’s a vast gulf between younger, anything-goes me and the skeptical old prude he’s become. The luxury of watching Horns On Demand cost slightly more than a theater ticket, but allowed me to fast-forward through at least four scenes I didn’t need to see. (Pretty sure whatever little dialogue I missed didn’t affect my understanding of the plot. At all.) Along those lines, Radcliffe sure embraces the heck out of that F-word, as if to say, “LOOK, WORLD! I’M AN ADULT ACTOR NOW! STOP MENTIONING THE STUPID WIZARD THING! THAT WAS ONE JOB!” That didn’t do much for me, either.
While the sequences showing Ig’s manipulative powers in action play out like the darkest Judd Apatow comedy of all time, the film keeps halting for childhood flashbacks so long that it was like watching Stephen King’s It again, except shallower and with less endearing kids. To me their interruptions felt more organic and more essential in print than they come off in live-action.
Later, when Ig finds himself joined by a pack of severely underfunded CG snakes, those moments sure aren’t as dull, but Radcliffe appears to be surrounded by weightless foes from a PS3 cutscene. My favorite parts come later in the movie, when his ongoing metamorphosis necessitates exceedingly more complicated makeup effects, co-credited to The Walking Dead‘s “walker” mastermind Greg Nicotero. All the practical effects beat the CG effects, no contest.
(For what it’s worth, Radcliffe’s American accent seemed fine by me. I thought it was shaky in the trailers, but I didn’t detect any missteps sketchy enough to jolt me out of the movie.)
So did I like it or not? I realize I should’ve known better what to expect, not only from the book but also from the resumé of director Alexandre Aja, whose last work was the infamously exploitative Piranha 3-D. I proceeded anyway and have no one to blame but myself for watching something for which I’m clearly not the target audience. That’s on me.
That being said: the biggest change between the novel and the movie stripped away a lot of Horns‘ original narrative power. In the book we and Ig learn the real killer’s identity before the halfway point, turning the second half into a chilling cat-and-mouse game that lets the murderer bask in the spotlight for separate creepy chapters without Ig around. The movie withholds the revelation for as long as possible, regrettably reducing it to a straightforward whodunit with few twists and an actor who for several minutes seems uncomfortable playing the full-tilt psycho. Granted, the ending goes a bit beyond murder-mystery conventions (even with the novel, I described the ending to others four years ago as “loopy”), but the earlier scenes of mordant black humor don’t segue well into the later, lackluster crime-drama housekeeping that all the fire and brimstone pixels in the world can’t hope to cover up.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Horns end credits, though we do confirm that some of those snakes were indeed real enough to require a wrangler. I’m guessing the ground-crawlers in group shots were the real deal and the larger, feistier ones crawling around Radcliffe’s arms and neck were virtual stand-ins. If I’m wrong and Radcliffe did have live snakes draped on him, I wonder how many seconds it took before crew members began cracking jokes about calming them with Parseltongue.