Horns (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“Are you horny?”, asks Merrin (Juno Temple), the longterm sweetheart of Ig (Daniel Radcliffe), her first words spoken in this film as they lie together, kissing on a blanket under a tree in the woods. “I’m getting warmer,” he replies. Verdant and sunlit, this is an Edenic setting – indeed, Ig’s opening voice-over has just described Merrin as his “Garden of Eden”.

Yet every perfect Paradise has its dark underside, its snake in the grass, and director/co-writer Alexandre Aja shows us this by tilting down from this idyll, deep down through the earth to an inverted Ig, some time later, lying in a drunken stupor on the floor of his house as a pack of townspeople and press bay for his blood outside. Merrin has been found murdered in the woods, and Ig, now the prime suspect, is going through a personal hell of grief, self-blame and vindictive aggression. After visiting his parents (James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan), and chatting with his drug-taking, trumpet-playing brother Terry (Joe Anderson), Ig angrily, drunkenly tramples the Christian shrine that the locals have left where Merrin’s body was found, and wakes up the next morning in bed with old friend Glenna (Kelli Garner), and with two hard protuberances sticking out of his forehead.

From sexual readiness to Terry’s brass instruments to the demonic antlers on Ig’s head, horniness in Horns comes loaded with a shifting metaphorical quality. Most of the townsfolk pay little heed to Ig’s newly acquired features, and they are completely invisible to his good friend Lee (Max Minghella), but they certainly help Ig see the evil that has hitherto lain hidden in Gideon Bay, and soon he’s using his new demonic powers to track down Merrin’s killer and raise a little hell on the way. Merrin’s death, like Laura Palmer’s in TV’s Twin Peaks, exposes all manner of ugliness in a community that seems so innocent on the surface, while anguished, embattled Ig finds himself set on a course between good and evil, acceptance and revenge.

The best material here is the film’s satire of smalltown American values, of the modern media and of celebrity culture (the last embodied by Heather Graham’s fame-hungry, narcissistic waitress Veronica). Also good is the evolving romance between Ig and Merrin, shown in a series of flashbacks starting from their childhood meet-cute in church, and suffused with ambiguity as we keep wondering if Merrin, like Ig and indeed like all the other characters, might just be a devil in disguise. Far less engaging, however, is the narrative’s central pivot – the question of whodunnit and why – to which everything else is a mere sideshow attraction. For the answer, once revealed, proves neither interesting nor satisfying, and makes the story snake its way to a rather conventional, conservative climax in which good triumphs and evil is punished.

Adapted from the 2010 novel by Joe Hill, Horns combines brooding gothic with plenty of black humour, while leaving room, amid all the devilry, for redemption. That Paradise lost can be regained, and that death is not the end, shows the gleefully mean-spirited director of Haute Tension (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), and Piranha 3D (2010) pulling in his horns to reveal his softer, warmer side.

Anton Bitel