After graduating from the magical confines of Harry Potter, it would have been easy for Daniel Radcliffe to simply sit back and continue to do what’s familiar. Instead we’ve seen quite the unpredictable streak; embracing his dark side in the Gothic horror The Woman in Black, playing Beat Generation writer Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, and even venturing into traditional rom-com territory in What If. Horns brings Radcliffe back into the realm of the supernatural, but also into territory he’s never tread: film noir, dark comedy, and Greek tragedy.
Directed by Alexandre Aja based on the devilishly fun novel by Joe Hill, Horns is a gear shift not only for Radcliffe, but for the filmmaker as well. Aja has mostly kept busy in the horror genre, but has never really planted a flag in a specific style. So a psychotically tense film like High Tension feels nothing like the goofy, exploitative Piranha, which doesn’t come close to resembling The Hills Have Eyes. His diverse ability makes Aja perhaps the most obvious choice to handle an odd mix of tones, although the results are a little bit messy in execution.
Radcliffe is Ig Parrish, the suspect in the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, played by Juno Temple in yet another role that finds her as the surreal object of desire. The small-town residents all hate Ig with a passion and believe he’s gotten away with the crime; even the local media has him pegged as the killer. But Ig insists he’s innocent, drowning himself in alcohol and vowing to avenger Merrin’s death by finding the true killer by any means necessary. And as if his prayers had been answered, the following morning sees him waking up with two magical horns sprouting from his head that force others to confess their deepest, darkest sins. Here is where Aja seems most comfortable, indulging in the bizarre and comical side of Ig’s investigation into his newfound powers. Basically, Ig brings out the worst in everybody. A hateful bartender wants to burn his own bar to the ground; a pair of cops reveal their deep passion for one another; and a gaggle of news reporters break out into a pier six brawl just to get a scoop. Even Ig’s twitchy musician brother (Joe Anderson) is susceptible, but his altruistic childhood friend Lee (Max Minghella) is strangely immune. The townsfolk’s deep-rooted revelations only get weirder by the encounter, and soon Ig has thrown everything and everyone into chaos. Perhaps it’s due to our affinity for Radcliffe, but Ig remains a sympathetic character despite his clear enjoyment of the damage he’s causing. Or more likely it’s because the people he meets are so depraved. Heather Graham is terrific as a fame-whoring waitress who lied to the cops about Ig just so she could get on the news. These people deserve whatever they get, but does Ig deserve to give it to them? The screenplay by Keith Bunin teases but barely considers Ig’s use of his satanic gifts.
It’s as Aja transitions into serious mode that things get a little messy. Through Ig’s drunken flashbacks we’re treated to what amounts to a whimsical, nostalgic romance, and while it’s beautifully shot it doesn’t conform to the dark tidings of the present. As Ig learns more and begins closing in on the suspect, he understandably grows more demonic with rage, and the film begins to embrace its horror aspects fully. But it can’t completely escape the silliness of what came before, except during the truly heartbreaking scenes with Merrin’s distraught father (David Morse), who believes his daughter was murdered by the man she loved. Plenty of sinister revelations are to come, and numerous red herrings are thrown out, but other than Ig few of the suspects are interesting enough to be compelling. That’s not a knock on the performances, which are solid all around. This is Radcliffe’s show, though, and it’s genuinely fun to watch him in something this weird that is clearly aiming for mature audiences. Not only does he drop a lot of F-bombs, he does some truly heinous things that are very un-Harry Potter. With his scruffy beard and sullen eyes, Radcliffe looks like a man who has lost love only to find sadness and rage, and it’s a tragic side to the actor that we’ve rarely had a chance to see. He’s great here, but these Horns just aren’t as sharp as they could have been.
For more on Horns, check out my interview with Alexandre Aja here!