Horns is one the brightest dark fantasy films I have ever seen. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. Much of it is set during the daytime, during a season which I’m guessing is either spring or summer. These decisions are not usually coincidental–director Alexandre Aja could have picked any time of the year to film Horns, but he opted for brightness. From a completely visual standpoint, it’s a beautifully shot movie. Scenes are framed nicely, and the added benefit of daylight provides a storybook quality that challenges the dark and dreary horror-sub genre status quo.
This is interesting, because tonally, Horns is anything but bright. It tells the story of Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a Washington native who is accused of murdering the love of his life, Merrin (Juno Temple). Everyone in town is sure that he’s guilty, though they don’t actually have any proof of his alleged wrongdoing. Reporters come up to him and ask him how it feels to “get away with murder.” The local pub doesn’t want his business anymore, even though they “need” his patronage. Nobody really wants him around.
The blatant demonization of Ig Parrish is given literal weight as he wakes up one morning with horns sprouting from his temple. He soon discovers that this surprise growth comes with its own unique power–people cannot lie to him. Everyone he interacts with tells them exactly what they’re thinking and how they feel, or as Ig describes it, his presence “brings the worst out in people.” It’s an ironic sentiment for a town that openly embraces the guilty until proven more guilty rationality of Nancy Grace.
Ig knows that he isn’t the perpetrator, but again, nobody believes him, save for his childhood best friend-turned-defense lawyer Lee (Max Minghella). With the power of unfiltered honesty on his side, he spends the remainder of Horns trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.
It’s a strange story, no doubt about it. Though Horns takes place in what appears to be a modern setting, much of it exists in a world that is not of our own. It’s a common theme found in the genre of dark fantasy. But unlike, say, Pan’s Labyrinth or even Beetlejuice, there isn’t a clear distinction between the world we occupy and the world of magic/spirituality. Ig wakes up with horns growing from his head, and that’s the “portal” we’re given. If everything else looks and seems normal enough, then, well, we just have to take the paranormal stuff at face value for what it is–paranormal stuff.
At this point, it’s easy to write off Horns as a tonally inconsistent affair, because a lot of it is, and the setting is just the icing on the cake. The film isn’t a comedy by any stretch of the term, though the “secrets” that people reveal to Ig are often hilarious when they aren’t down-right ugly or awkward (though sometimes they’re a combination of all three). And just when you think it’s okay to laugh along with the preposterous nature of humankind, Horns cuts to another scene of harrowing emotion. This goes both ways: when you finally begin to empathize with the characters (and maybe even cry a little), something goofy happens. It’s like a roller coaster that shows you awesome loops, but never lets you experience them.
This could have easily resulted in a messy, incoherent film, but surprise surprise: Horns is anything but incoherent. Sure, a lot of it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense–we are never given an explanation as to why Ig grows horns and begins to possess devil-like powers, and there are moments in the second act where narrated exposition becomes a bit too obvious. But for the most part, the story works. Most of this is thanks to a powerhouse performance by Radcliffe, who officially has grown up. Naysayers have typecasted him as Harry Potter for as long as I can remember, myself included. But not once was I inclined to shout “use your wand, Harry” during my viewing of Horns. The Woman in Black wasn’t so lucky. Radcliffe has left his wizardry days behind him, and it’s time to appreciate his acting abilities beyond what he brought with Harry Potter.
With that said, Horns may have benefited from a little incoherence. The movie showcases a straightforward story, save for the occasional flashback every now and then. I don’t typically compare movies to books, because doing so is usually a fools errand. And I don’t usually read books before watching the movies they are adapted into. It’s not that I have any against novels or anything–I am a fairly active reader. It’s just that the books I tend to enjoy usually delve into “unfilmable” territories.
Horns by Joe Hill is one such book. As a novel, the story is mind bending and labyrinthine. There are moments when time itself is inconsequential. Reality is portrayed as a fluid entity. Physics, popular theology and common sense is all but thrown out the window. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I loved it every wibbly wobbly timey wimey thing about it.
Long story short, many things that made Horns the novel great wouldn’t translate well onto film. So it isn’t surprising that Horns the movie scraps the deeper metaphysical stuff for a more streamlined narrative. As a fan of the book, I was initially disappointed because of this, but again, it makes sense. And the end result is a film that is, for the most part, good enough for fans of the source material. It’s intriguing, eminently watchable and occasionally humorous. They could have done far worse.