If there truly is a hell on Earth then Ignatius ‘Ig’ Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) lives at the center of it. It’s one thing to be in heavenly bliss if you feel you’ve met your soul mate, it’s another to lose her, knowing she was brutally murdered and to live a life of hellish torment when accused of her death.
This is what happens in Horns, the new and somewhat bizarre fantasy/horror with dark comic undertones from director Alexendra Aja, based on the popular Joe Hill novel of the same name. Hill’s book took place in New Hampshire but the film switches coasts to the Pacific Northwest, intentionally evoking images, no doubt, of those same cinematic misty mountains and occasionally damp country lanes of Twilight.
“The only thing that mattered was her,” explains Ig in a voice-over at the beginning when we see the young man and the love of his life Merrin (Juno Temple) in happier times. “I’m gonna love you for the rest of my life,” Ig tells Merrin, his loving eyes looking as misty as the northwest mountains themselves.
Then it happens. Merrin is murdered and left overnight in some woods nearby. Because witnesses saw the young couple arguing at a nearby diner that evening, Ig is naturally the suspect. “How does it feel to get away with murder?” a local TV reporter demands as Ig tries to make his way through town. Only Ig’s parents appear to have sympathy. “Don’t talk to reporters,” dad (James Remar) advises his son. “They’ll just twist it around.” And dad’s right. The local newspaper prints a picture of Ig on its cover under the headline, Is This The Face Of The Devil?
Then something even stranger happens. In a drunken rage, after angrily smashing religious figurines and urinating on lighted candles around a makeshift memorial for the murdered young girl, Ig wakes up to find he’s sprouted a pair of horns; not just a couple of nasty bruises protruding up on his forehead but a genuine pair of goat-like horns making him appear something like a confused, devilish wood nymph but without the forked tail. And there’s something else. When anyone is near Ig they can’t help but feel compelled to confess their innermost, darkest secrets. When Ig runs to the doctor to find out what’s happened to him, the woman sitting next to him in the waiting room suddenly declares, “I’d like to kill my daughter and her spoiled ass!”
Not only that, but Ig develops the ability to make others do whatever he wants them to do simply by a force of suggestion. When a group of reporters continue to hound him with one overly ambitious female reporter telling him, “Hey, confess and I get out of stupid local news,” Ig faces them all and offers a challenge: Beat each other up and whoever remains standing will be the one to get an exclusive. Without question, the reporters turn and proceed to kick the hell out of each other while Ig calmly walks away.
With Ig, Radcliffe is doing his best to distance himself from Harry Potter, though with the film’s unmistakable echoes of Twilight, the story’s supernatural element and the similar young adult target audience, creating that distance remains an uphill battle. However, Radcliffe is nothing if not game, as proven with other more recent releases, and here the young star of Potter sheds as much of that teenage innocence as possible, not to mention how well the British actor’s American accent is developing, which here sounds more authentic than ever.
Religious and sacrilegious imagery abounds. In a flashback, when a young Merrin first attracts Ig’s attention in church she does so by reflecting light from the cross hanging around her neck. The diner where Ig and Merrin argue is known as Eve’s Diner with the name emblazoned in yellow across a huge neon lit red, golden delicious., and when Ig emerges from the billowing smoke of a local bar on fire it’s as if the gates of hell have opened and Ig is passing through. Plus, I’m not sure if the victim’s name of Merrin was intentionally meant to remind us of the experienced devil fighting priest in The Exorcist, but it is there.
There’s a lot of good, dark humor in the earlier scenes as the town’s inhabitants willingly reveal their thoughts to Ig and act on their base emotions, but things get nastier as the story continues and blood splatters more forcefully than required. Heather Graham as the waitress in Eve’s diner is particularly good as she gleefully reveals her desire for fame and the length she will go to achieve it. “I wanna be a star,” she declares while reveling in thoughts of the endless pleasure fame will bring while showing complete disregard for the pain she’ll cause others in order to achieve it. Plus, there’s a funny payoff to that earlier scene of the press beating on each other when later we catch a glimpse of one of those reporters doing her job live on TV, her face covered in band-aids and bruises.
But there’s a fundamental issue with the plot that sticks out like the horns on Ig’s forehead and once it occurs to you, you can never shake it free. When Ig discovers what he can do without effort – compel a person to tell the truth and do whatever he suggests – why doesn’t he calmly compose himself then compel those guilty of being a false witness, not to mention the actual murderer, and tell them all to go to the police and confess their crimes? We know they couldn’t stop themselves. Case solved and the innocence of Ig restored. But no. Characters shout, argue and fight, and Ig can never stop his young man emotions getting in the way of logical action. And while it’s all sick fun in the first half as the impossible situation establishes itself, the second half and all its grisliness just feels bad.
Plus, consider this: Only in Hollywood would an actor as good looking as Kelli Garner with all that obvious sex appeal around her be cast as a barmaid considered to be so unattractive that men need to be drunk before sleeping with her. The fantasy of Horns can suspend your disbelief only so far.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)