One morning, Ignatius wakes up to find a pair of devil horns growing right out of his forehead. Because this situation is based on the novel Horns by Joe Hill, who has inherited a flair for matter-of-fact macabre from his father Stephen King, we know that this isn’t a good sign. To make matters worse, Ig is currently the number one suspect in the murder of his girlfriend at the time of this new facial feature. Not a good time to start looking overtly devilish, but then again antlers are almost never a good look on a human person. Maybe Imogene of David Small’s picture book Imogene’s Antlers could pull it off, but even then only barely. It’s certainly not something most of us have to worry about.
Here, a charge of morbid curiosity regarding this development is ignited by two factors. One, Ig is being demonized by the press and becomes an embodiment of their stereotyping, an idea more fulfilling when explored in Gone Girl, but there’s room for both. Two, Ig is played by Daniel Radcliffe, sweet, pure, innocent, heroic Harry Potter himself. The film certainly wants us thinking about that, making some use of his screen persona to stack the deck. We’re supposed to be on his side right away, because surely Harry Potter wouldn’t murder his girlfriend. His history, and earnest performance, provides a modicum of transgression to scenes where he gets drunk, swears, smokes, has sex. He’s bad in quotation marks, a figure who’s literally no angel, the most literal Biblical allusion in a film full of them, including an Eve’s Diner, complete with a neon apple out front.
What’s odd about the freshly sprouting horns is how little others seem to notice, shrugging them off and going about their business. What’s especially strange is how small Ig’s reaction is. He goes to the doctor, and when that doesn’t help he just wanders around. They’re just another burden to bear. But he soon discovers the horns cause even worse reactions. They have the power to get people spilling their deepest, darkest secrets, allowing him to discover that the world is a perverse and ugly place held barely in check by a sense of propriety that fast erodes when he’s around. He goes to his parents (Kathleen Quinlan and James Remar) who instantly confess they think he killed the girl. “And she was my favorite thing about you,” his dad says. That hurts. He decides to use this thorny truth power to track down the real murderer and clear his name.
This is a fine concept, and Keith Bunin’s script allows the movie to glancingly incorporate a variety of tones and styles, creating a genre mélange that ends up a comic body horror thriller neo-noir supernatural murder mystery. But it thinks it’s weirder than it is. The revelations of his fellow man – one wants to binge eat, another wants to be a flasher, yet another’s a secret arsonist – seem rather pat, all things considered. And the gee-ain’t-mankind-the-real-monsters plotting gets lost in the execution that runs on a paranormal mystery the characters largely shrug at and a dead-girl mystery rotely developed and simply solved with limp twists and iffy effects. Plot threads involving Ig’s lawyer (Max Minghella), brother (Joe Anderson), a bartender (Kelli Garner), a waitress (Heather Graham), and his girlfriend’s father (David Morse), all stumble towards the conclusion with him to little effect.
Director Alexandre Aja has made a career out of going all in on bungled execution in horror movies like the ruinously twisted High Tension or the traumatic gleeful bloodbath Piranha 3D. With Horns he enthusiastically embraces every cracked corner of the concept, taking it far further than it should go, but not as far as it could. With lush colors and handsome photography, and a few unfortunately overplayed choices in needle drops, it goes from sudden outbursts of dark comedy and gore to surprisingly sweet (sometimes) childhood flashbacks that melt into borderline sexy young adult romance. These flashbacks, which give Juno Temple slightly more to the role of girlfriend beyond mere corpse, take us out of the main narrative, but it’s so ambling and rambling in the telling anyway that it only cuts off theoretical momentum. Give Horns credit for trying something new, even if it ends up only fitfully working.