I’m going to have to start this one with a little first-world rant, okay, and it’s going to sound bitterly middle class, so forgive me. I loathe multiplex cinemas. Despite their booming sound quality and abundance of choice (so long as its mainstream choice), you just can’t guarantee a respectful audience. Unlike my local independent cinema, where the audience is usually populated with people who share a respect for filmmaking, the multiplexes seem to gather wandering souls tired of their retail therapy who, maddeningly, just want somewhere dark to rearrange their shopping or have a chat.
The last thing in the world I want to hear at the cinema is your conversation.
Through the ads and then trailers before Horns my heart sank as I tried and failed to filter out several high volume conversations. The BBFC certificate finally appeared, followed by the film’s production idents, and none of these conversations showed any signs of abating. Nevertheless, I hunkered down and tried to get to grips with the film before me.
Horns is an oddball movie, one that commendably, defiantly exists against the grain of multiplex cinema expectations. It has a daft central premise that it doesn’t even attempt to rationalise, and a tone the veers wildly between different constellations on the star chart. Anyone who doesn’t like the gruesome and violent butting up against the weird and comedic can pretty much stop reading now.
Based on the book by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King, more on that connection later), it centres on a young man named Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), scourge of a small lumbering town where he is the prime suspect in the murder of his long-term girlfriend Merrin (Junon Temple). Local press follow him from location to location as varying members of the community shun him; he lurks in the shadows at a vigil to Merrin’s memory which virtually doubles as the formation of a lynch-mob against him. It’s all the more painful because Ig adored Merrin; she was the love of his life (as a series of extended but welcome flashbacks detail).
So far so who-cares, right? Well how about this? Ig wakes up one morning after a night of heavy drinking to find horns sprouting from his forehead, and it’s not long before he realises that these horns bring with them strange powers, the keenest of which is that they compel those around him to divulge their innermost secrets; those things that we’d love to tell the world, but we know we can’t. Think of it as a devilish twist on The Invention of Lying, only not so utterly intolerable.
Once Ig (and the audience) get over the initial weirdness of this development, he realises he can play this to his advantage and worm a confession out of Merrin’s real killer; he only has to figure out who that is. Thus we get Horns; a black comedy murder mystery with a seemingly inexplicable supernatural element and a story that weaves and twists with the same lurching steps as Ig on one of his drunken benders.
I’ve not read Joe Hill’s book, but there are some key inspirations that jump out here. For one thing, there’s a distinct waft of Twin Peaks about Horns. It’s open kookiness, coupled with the death-of-a-community’s-daughter premise evokes Mark Frost and David Lynch’s seminal TV series like the smell of an unemptied ashtray. Heather Graham even plays a waitress. Then there’s daddy’s legacy looming large over the picture. Hill’s murder mystery and the flashbacks herein forefront the bonds between friends that span decades, and the jumps from present day to childhood adventures evoke nothing so much as IT.
Yet what separates Horns out from its key forebearers is how shamelessly prone to excess it is; no surprise when you consider French director Alexandre Aja is at the helm. Working primarily in horror (and Horns has it’s share of graphic and disturbing scenes), Aja’s last feature was the openly bonkers trashfest Piranha 3D. The material here is far more developed and nuanced, but Aja is not afraid to channel that same barely contained mania, heightening the sense of chaos and potential carnage in a number of scenes, while evoking the spiky spirit of tempestuous, passionate youth (there’s even a knowingly cool soundtrack featuring the likes of David Bowie, Pixies and The Flaming Lips). What could’ve been a portentous exercise in brow-beating instead takes on a triumphantly weird lopsided gait, aligning Horns more closely with offbeat modern fairy tales like Heathers, Stoker or Donnie Darko .
High praise, really. And it’s a pleasure to report as much. Key to all of this is Radcliffe as Ig, who shrugs off the ankle irons of Harry Potter to craft a well-rounded, emotionally rich performance; something vital to a film that careers this way and that like, aptly, a bull in a china shop. He is ably supported. Juno Temple is always great to watch, and though her role here is diminished to flashbacks, she leaves her mark on the fringes of the picture as much as Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer did on Twin Peaks. Likewise, underused but always valuable, David Morse brings dependable greatness playing her grieving father. Kelli Garner, James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan also make much out of small roles.
In the end, much like Ig, Alexandre Aja is his own worst enemy. When Horns stumbles it is for the same reasons as when it thrives. That over-indulgence can be a tricky thing, exhilarating at one turn, cloying the next. An overlong drug-induced hallucination sequence is the most pointed example of this, while the entire film feels a little baggy. Running at 2 hours, one suspects a good 15 minutes could’ve been shaved out of it for pace, as the third act struggles to decide where it’s climax is. Likewise, Horns is dotted with unnecessary narration in an effort to hammer home moments the audience ought to have been credited to appreciate.
Nevertheless, there is far more here that works than doesn’t, and while some audiences will be put off by the brazen strangeness of Horns, it’ll charm as many as it repels. Those who crave rigidity and reason in their supernatural cinema may be confounded or dismiss Horns as laughable, but I’ll tell you one thing, happily… those chattering fucks in the multiplex didn’t make so much as a peep once the story got rolling.