Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenplay: Keith Bunin, based on the novel by Joe Hill
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Joe Anderson, Max Minghella, David Morse, Kelli Garner, Kathleen Quinlan, James Remar and Heather Graham
Rated R / 2 hours
October 31, 2014
(out of four)
Horns is a lousy movie that nonetheless makes me eager to read the book. I can only assume that something even tangentially associated with Stephen King's bloodline has to have more vitality to it than this sorry excuse for an adaptation. I've never read a Joe Hill novel but I keep meaning to. Perhaps this is just the motivation I need. Anything to wipe the lifeless taste of this movie from my lips.
Here is an ostensibly clever conceit, a tongue-in-cheek religious parable that playfully conflates good and evil in the name of a good old fashioned murder mystery, and yet the resulting film has been dulled down to a nub, removing any semblance of the moral or satirical subversion it seems to be going for.
The premise is this: A young man, who has been falsely accused and charged with the murder of his girlfriend, spontaneously sprouts devilish horns that hypnotically force those around him to reveal their innermost feelings, no matter how cruel, criminal or damning. The young man proceeds to put this unwitting alliance with the dark side to good use as he tries to unravel the secrets of his beloved's death.
Good stuff. But Horns, as directed by Alexandre Aja and adapted by Keith Bunin, transitions from a mildly amusing, surreal comedy of (bad) manners to a rote, predictable murder mystery, before finishing up as a bad action movie. Despite a solid two-hour runtime, it feels the need to stampede through its plot and fill in the remaining gaps with intermittent pieces of awful voiceover narration. I'm guessing most of the major events in the film have corresponding scenes in the source novel, but virtually all of them come across as perfunctory - and worse than that, distracting. If the filmmakers were under the impression that the most interesting or important thing about their movie was finding out who really did the deed and why, they are strangely mistaken.
But that's the sense I get from them. As the film moves along, the flat drama of the murder "mystery" swallows up everything else that may have been worth exploring. I mean, just consider the possibilities - of comedy, of horror, of all kinds of things - inherent in the premise. Think of how many different directions you could have gone with it. But instead of using the plot as a jumping-off point, the film settles into a dull crime-solving rhythm.
The story's religious flavor goes almost completely untouched - except, again, as a plot point - which is odd considering the type of explicitly evocative imagery (horns, serpents) that plays such a major role. Worse yet, the best idea the film stumbles upon is all but abandoned after a few minutes. After Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) awakens one morning with horns growing from his head - the physical personification of the way everyone in town has viewed him since the accusations first surfaced - he quickly discovers the power those horns have. People practically can't help themselves around him - they casually notice his horns, then start to confess deep and uncomfortable truths about themselves, and in many cases actually start to act on those impulses. He truly brings out the devil in people. At first Ig is horrified, then amused, then finally clever enough to use it to his advantage.
The film milks that idea for a few good laughs, and then that's it - after a few scenes, that angle is essentially over and done with.
Now, obviously we can't have a movie that just repeats that same setup over and over again; but the least we could expect is for Horns to retain some of the mischievous spirit that makes those confessional scenes work. But all too quickly, we're back in plot mode; the comedy all but evaporates and the boredom sets in.
In flashbacks we get to meet Merrin (Juno Temple), Ig's childhood sweetheart who he planned to marry before her untimely death. The film shifts between multiple time periods - from the present, back to childhood, up to the recent past, and back again. We get to know their close-knit group of friends, which includes Ig's best friend Lee (Max Minghella) - who is also now his lawyer - as well as childhood tough guy-turned-sheriff Eric (Michael Adamthwaite); the heartsick, depressive bartender Glenna (Kelli Garner); and Ig's musician brother Terry (Joe Anderson). All of those roles - as well as Ig's parents, a local bartender and a local waitress - play their part, but perhaps that's exactly the problem. The characters don't do much but play their part. They're functional pieces in a screenplay and little more.
A movie with a weak script doesn't do many favors for Radcliffe as a leading man, because his limitations are so difficult to hide. But while a better actor may have been able to add a few sharp edges to Ignatius, he still couldn't very well save the character from the film itself. Aja, director of such schlock as Piranha 3D and Mirrors, doesn't even have much of an aesthetic to offer - strange, considering both the religious imagery and the picturesque British Columbia locations he has to play around with. Ultimately, Horns fails primarily because it seems to have almost no interest in accomplishing anything but the bare minimum the story requires.