Horns (2014)

Horns is based on a novel written by Joe Hill (better known as Stephen King‘s son. How’s about that for big shoes to fill?). Having heard great things about the source material I was optimistic about this adaptation and as I’m unable to count myself as a Harry Potter fan, I had no real preconceptions about Daniel Radcliffe as an actor. Although it’s a vaguely ambitious film, it sadly never engages to the point of becoming truly compelling and, while it looks pretty, it fails to give its characters any of the required depth in order for us to really empathise.

The film begins with a brief, dream-like sequence that gives us a taste of the intense relationship between our protagonist Ig (Radcliffe) and his girlfriend Merrin (a positively ethereal Juno Temple). A minute later and we learn that Merrin is dead, the victim of a rape/murder that Ig is being blamed for. The audience is to assume that Ig is innocent but all signs point to his guilt, not least the fact that soon after he begins sprouting devil-like horns from his forehead.

Rather than playing out as a horror film, the remainder is actually a very surreal murder mystery. Visually, it’s a feast of memorable set pieces but sadly they lack the cohesion to gel them together properly and form an enthralling storyline, which isn’t helped by the distinct lack of character development.

Horns certainly has a unique premise, and the way in which our protagonist begins to notice the titular temple growths, and more importantly the way everyone around him begins to react to his new facial additions is handled really well, and provides some much needed levity in a film bogged down by darkness. It’s not made instantly obvious why people are reacting the way they do but figuring it out provides some solid, if confusing, entertainment.

For a film so steeped in religious iconography, it’s difficult to ever really work out the message that’s being preached here. Having spent a considerable amount of time mulling it over, I’m still uncertain as to whether Hill is advocating faith or, in fact, the the absence of it. It definitely seems like a film that doesn’t definitively fall down on the side of good or evil, but instead explores the many shades of grey in between.

Horns boasts a fantastic central performance by Radcliffe, who seems eager to play against type and show his range, and certainly succeeds here as he smokes, screws and smoulders through the film, throwing in the occasional, sometimes ill-judged, wisecrack. Juno Temple, although restricted to flashback scenes that help us piece the puzzle together, shines in her relatively brief screen time. She’s a fearless actress, both emotionally and physically, although her American accent does falter on occasion. The rest of the cast is rounded out by familiar faces Max Minghella, David Morse, Kelli Garner and Heather Graham, all of whom stay on just the right side of cliche.

In addition to the solid performances, Horns is also sound-tracked terrifically. It bounces effortlessly between The Pixies, Fever Ray, David Bowie and even Marilyn Manson‘s pounding Depeche Mode cover. Rather than feeling like a shrewd effort to appeal to its core demographic, each song feels tremendously well placed.

It’s also really nice to see Alexandre Aja doing something outside of his existing ouevre, even if it hasn’t quite paid off in this instance. It’s directed incredibly well, and his visual flair is present and correct but it’s marred by a hackneyed script and erratic editing.

Sadly, despite the visual prowess, acting talent and polished soundtrack, Horns is simply too disjointed and schizophrenic to ever really work as a complete piece, feeling more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent film. Instead of living up to it’s promise, Horns unfortunately plays out more like a big budget student film and never delves deep enough to be meaningful; a regrettable case of style over substance.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

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