Everyone has got some ugliness deep down in our souls. It may be a fleeting thought or repressed anger, but good people try to keep it hidden, which isn’t a bad thing. It makes us human, and without that humanity, our brutal honesty shines through. Alexandre Aja‘s Horns tries to explore this inner darkness by weaving together religion, salvation, damnation, and dark secrets, and the movie’s approach, albeit heavy-handed at times, is admirable. There’s not much room for subtlety, but the darkly comedic aspects help balance out the somber tone, and although the plot stumbles across clunky storytelling, it’s a refreshing horror film that conjures up some sympathy for a devil.
Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is at the center of media witch hunt when his whole town believes he murdered his beloved girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). He blacked out the night she was murdered, but he’s pretty sure he didn’t kill her, and he’s on a mad hunt to find out who did. His search becomes somewhat complicated when he unexpectedly sprouts horns and also gains the ability to make people voice their darkest thoughts and feelings, which usually dwell in the realm of the perverse, mean-spirited, and violent. Ig’s demonic powers increase as he tries to find the person who took away his heaven on Earth.
Keith Bunin‘s script opens on a sly note as Ig, even without his horns, is unintentionally bringing out the worst in people as they blindly accuse him of murdering Merrin and even his family, with the exception of his brother Terry (Joe Anderson), doubts he’s innocent. It’s easy for the town to see Ig as evil and easily ignore their inner demons. It’s not until Ig starts to gain a demonic presence that their evil comes forth, albeit in a comical way where people still lack the self-awareness of their actions. Every confession is delivered as matter-of-fact rather than some cathartic revelation.
And Ig is certainly no angel. He’s just a regular guy who has suffered a devastating loss, and needs the truth to find peace even if the truth is unpleasant. Radcliffe walks the line perfectly between making Ig sympathetic, but not so much of a tortured soul that we rule out the possibility that he’s Merrin’s killer, or at the very least he’s pissed off enough to make his persecutors suffer.
The cleverness of the premise, the darkly comic tone, and Radcliffe’s performance all have us hooked, so it’s frustrating when Aja takes a long detour to detail Ig’s childhood relationships with Terry, Merrin, and friends Lee, Glenna, and Eric. While exposition is difficult, a solid chunk of the film is devoted to learning these details, and while they’re important, they still slow down the film as we get what feels like a long prologue dropped into the middle of the story. We’re getting wrapped up in the mystery of the horns, who killed Merrin, and what Ig will do, and then we’re stopped with a large sign that says “CHARACTER BACKSTORY AHEAD”.
These flashbacks happen on several occasions, and perhaps they’re a necessary evil (no pun intended) of the narrative, but they lack much style beyond the childhood scenes being bright and idyllic and recent flashbacks being dark and dreary like the majority of the picture. Aja occasionally tries to mirror Ig’s rebellious attitude with some slow-mo shots like Ig walking out of a burning building, but that’s posturing. The themes are more interesting, and Aja’s is far more in tune with his subtext, overbearing as it may be.
What starts out as mild religious interjection eventually builds to a staple without ever really getting into the specifics of the Bible. The movie works from the Judeo-Christian imagery everybody knows—serpents, sin, the devil, etc. When Ig starts wielding a pitchfork, Aja is clearly winking at the audience but never so much that he undermines his picture. It’s a balancing act between being cutesy with the symbolism without verging into campiness. The emphasis on making it entertaining does come with the cost of some loose metaphors—for example, there’s crucifix imagery to the point of Merrin backing up against crossed pieces of wood while backing away from her attacker—but she’s not a messiah figure. She’s a redeemer and a protector, and that’s all Aja needs from this piece of symbolism.
The movie is full of these broad strokes, but they paint an enjoyable picture. Horns offer up a unique horror-comedy where the horror comes from acknowledging how terrible we can be not in the “I could be a murderer!” sense, but the temptation of our darkest impulses. One of the most painful scenes I’ve seen this year is Ig’s mother telling him what she truly thinks of him. For all of its dark comedy, exaggerated symbolism, and supernatural trappings, Horns always remains grounded because we know our darkest thoughts; we just choose to speak no evil. It’s a little terrifying to think what would happen if someone brought it out.