French director Alexandre Aja, best known for his stylish take on horror, has plenty of energy and cinematic ambition that make his films a visual treat, even when they’re difficult to watch. Yet with his latest, Horns, based on the Joe Hill dark fantasy/mystery novel of the same name, you may find yourself wishing he had dialed back on his visual flair to leave room for the literary depth that a modern-day fable about fallen angels would need.
This is not to say that the movie is bad; its cast, setting, premise, and potent mix of pathos and humor make it stand out among this year’s crop of Halloween releases. Horns follows Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a young man who has been living under the pressure of being suspected of the brutal murder of his girlfriend (Juno Temple) by his entire small Canadian town. A year after the incident, he wakes up with a set of devilish horns, which have a peculiar effect on the people around him; rather than recoiling in fear or disgust, they can’t help but confess their deepest secrets to Ig, even if it’s something he doesn’t need or want to hear. As he gradually comes to accept the apparent permanence of the horns, he sets out with his newfound power to find the real perpetrator.
Pulling this story off would require a juggling act of three tones: satire, trouble in small-town paradise drama, and religious parable. Aja attempts all three, and is largely successful with the first two. Ig is a sensitive, respectful guy—even if his latest troubles have given him a harder edge—and hearing a person happily confess their hypocrisy is less satisfying than you might expect when they’re people you’ve known your whole life. Ig’s gradual, reluctant acceptance of his new life is effectively conveyed, and extended flashbacks to Ig and his friends’ childhoods help convey just how devastating both of Ig’s recent traumas—losing the love of his life and the arrival of the horns—really are.
Everything gets slightly derailed when it comes to the visually striking but thematically inconsistent symbolism. There’s a great deal of biblical imagery that creates effective atmosphere; the myth of fallen angel Lucifer is often brought up as Ig’s powers and appearance become increasingly devilish, and several key events happen in Eve’s Diner. Yet as everything races to a conclusion, the significance of this imagery becomes more muddled than intriguing, with a finale that feels like it was written for an entirely different movie.
Despite its flaws, Horns is a step in the right direction for Radcliffe, Aja, and American magical realist cinema (even with its French director, Canadian setting, and English leading man). And we can only hope it serves as a massive boost for all three.
HORNS | RATED R | IN THEATERS FRI 10.31
While Daniel Radcliffe continues to visibly chart his own path away from the role that made him famous with risky roles in Horns and The F Word/What If, a much quieter rebellion against typecasting with another pigeonholed actor is happening on British television with “A Young Doctor’s Notebook.” Partially based on the life and work of legendary Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, Radcliffe and Jon Hamm play the same Russian doctor at different stages of his life, both during and after the Revolution of 1917; the older, morphine-addled Hamm often flashes back to the younger, idealistic, impressionable Radcliffe.
A recurring theme in Horns is the idea of demons having originally been fallen angels, and few movies have delved into the apparent moral conflict among God’s divine servants more directly than 1995’s The Prophecy. Starring Christopher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel with ulterior motives among a secret angelic war. Turns out the angels have mixed feelings about humanity, ranging from empathy to jealousy to outright hatred. Look out for a deliciously wicked appearance by Viggo Mortensen as the king of fallen angels, Lucifer.