“Pick a sin we can both live with.”
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s a saying that I personally can attest to, but when it comes to artistry and celebritism, it’s fascinating to see if and when the artistic gene is passed down through the generations. For writer Joe Hill, even with his lengthy list of published works, he will always have a lifetime of comparison ahead of him. But that should be expected when you decide to pursue a writing career and your father is the one and only Stephen King. Luckily for Hill, his father’s writing gene didn’t skip a generation, and he’s been blessed with a mind as inventive and a knack for storytelling as compelling as his dear old dad. Now, as he’s started to migrate out of Stephen’s shadow and create a following of his own, he’s earned yet another superlative that not only proves he’s inherited the King writing gift, but adds him to a pool of selective writers and solidifies Hill’s individualism in the writing field. He has had one of his novels turned into a film…a very, very fun and worthwhile film that retroactively praises his own creation.
Hill’s 2010 supernatural romance/dark comedy/murder mystery, “Horns,” is the kind of twisted tale that would have found solace in the hands of a young Sam Raimi. Once Raimi got more comfortable with his style and became able to integrate comedy into his work, he became a leader in revisionist horror, a development that would only loosen the restrictions surrounding the horror genre and allow it to become increasingly malleable. For all of Raimi’s quirky experimentations, his twist on horror gave way to crazed minds like Wes Craven, Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon, and Alexandre Aja. Aja, who debuted with the French bloodbath, “High Tension,” has taken his sweet time discovering how he works best, and after a staggering array of hits and misses, he has landed on Hill’s “Horns” which, to some degree, is one of the best Raimi films that Raimi never made, and is also, without question, Aja’s most accomplished film.
“Horns” tells the story of Ig Perrish, a Washington state resident who wakes up one morning to learn that his girlfriend, Merrin, whom he has loved deeply since they were both young, has been found murdered. The town immediately turns on him, refusing to hear his side of the story or even contemplate for a moment that Ig might be innocent. But Ig hasn’t committed the crime, despite some characteristics that would lead anybody to think otherwise (his affinity for drinking; residing in his musician older brother’s shadow, etc.). Even his parents are a little skeptical. Ig’s lawyer and childhood friend, Lee, is practically the only person he’s got fighting for him. Ig’s not a dark person; he used to be a regular Sunday churchgoer, just like his girlfriend, but the lack of justice being served and the betrayal he feels has shaded him as of late. His new demeanor might make him far more suspicious, but Ig actually wants to find Merrin’s killer more than anybody else in his hometown. This vengeful drive ultimately ushers in a newfound supernatural ability.
After a boozy evening, Ig wakes up to what he believes is just a severe hangover, but upon closer look he notices small nubs growing out of the top of his head. Ig has sprouted horns, and their growth shows no signs of slowing down. Ig tries to hide them, he even tries to get them removed by a local doctor, but the horns have an outward effect on everybody Ig encounters. Suddenly, everybody is coming clean to Ig, directly. People he’s never met before, friendly townsfolk, even his own family and friends are spilling their deep, dark secrets to Ig without reason. He’s peeking into a special kind of darkness that everybody is grappling with: The truth…which is the one thing that Ig is desperately seeking. Who actually killed Merrin? Despite his grotesque aesthetic appearance, the horns seem to be a blessing in disguise. They might actually be able to assist Ig avenge the love that he has lost.
The Raimi-ness of “Horns” comes directly from the film’s complicated tone. Alexandre Aja handles what would have been a stumbling act for most very nimbly. From the director who crafted something so gruesome like the “The Hills Have Eyes” remake and something as gratuitously silly as “Piranha 3D,” it’s fulfilling to see Aja hone his talent in on something requiring a more sincere balance of those two polar tones. “Eyes” was creepy, yes, but mostly because of the dreaded, undesirable atmosphere and it was his fetish for violence that ultimately downgraded an otherwise top notch piece of redone horror. “Piranha” was a feast for the eyes, especially in three dimensions, even though it was rough on the stomach and pretty barren of creativity, minus the astronomical number of ways that somebody could be torn apart by a killer fish. As a whole, “Horns” is Aja’s most concise picture since “High Tension,” which buckled true fear and intensity together into an economic thrill show. “Horns” might clock in at a full two hours, but Aja unites everything together tightly with practically every intended emotion sticking its landing.
“Horns” is darkly funny, even more funny than it is violent. It’s also quite touching, and surely just as compelling as Hill’s original novel. The reaction that Ig’s horns have on the town bring about some wonderfully askew moments, like a bar owner setting his own pub ablaze, or two newscasters engaging in a brawl in order to obtain an exclusive interview with Ig. It also brings on some shocking moments, like when Ig’s brother and parents find themselves spilling their guts to Ig. Ultimately, the concept is pretty ingenious, and the beauty of the tone is the film’s ability to incorporate jaded humor with true drama, which extracts some nicely rendered performances from the eclectic cast.
Max Minghella and Joe Anderson are both quite good as Ig’s friend Lee and his brother, Terry, respectably (compensating for thin characterization) and Juno Temple keeps her annoyance level to a minimum as the deceased Merrin. Vets like Kathleen Quinlan, David Morse, Heather Graham and James Remar all elevate their respective scenes together, adding a dynamic that I wasn’t expecting. But the biggest joy that “Horns” has in its keep is Daniel Radcliffe as Ig. Calling his casting inspired isn’t totally accurate, but it is pretty daring, in my opinion. Like so many actors who have embodied iconic characters on screen, Radcliffe’s effort to wash clean the Harry Potter layer has been very determined, if disappointingly faulty. But I think its safe to say that he’s reformed here in “Horns.” The distraction I thought Radcliffe might have in the film evaporates within just a few minutes, especially once he starts to grapple with the influencing power of the horns. He sinks deep into Ig, and thanks to the film’s clever flashback inclusions, Radcliffe gets to play him from multiple angles. Aside from his comedic abilities, and his admirable immersion into the greater supernatural elements of the third act, the most notable part about Radcliffe’s performance is his emotions. He’s ablaze in some scenes, riddled with frustration and despair, and at other times he’s quietly heartbroken (for those who have read the book, an important turning point is actually gutting thanks to how Radcliffe plays it). More than ever, Radcliffe has proven to me what he’s truly capable of.
Now “Horns” doesn’t come without its array of issues. For as engaging as the mystery element is to the film’s pace and progression, when the reveals start trickling in, none of it is wildly unsurprising and it feels like there might be an entire corner of backstory that could have been incorporated – motives play pretty thinly and the climax doesn’t possess the punch it should’ve pulled. Also, the climax…is a lot. It’s just short of ‘go for broke,’ and while I thought it was pretty riotous, it might really leave some viewers deflated. Executing supernaturalism remains an enviable tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox because only so much of it can visually work in a manufactured environment. “Horns” gets most of it right, but that’s really going to depend viewer to viewer.
“Horns” is a mighty fun adaptation that deviates from the mainstay horror types and the other films that Alexandre Aja is known for. In a time when horror is being molded and remixed time and time again (James Wan continues to chisel at convention) and is attracting more filmmakers to just give the genre a whirl (given its problems, there is a still a lot to like about Kevin Smith’s “Tusk”), “Horns” is definitely a contemporary’s genre film, and the kind of wild story that could only be conceived by someone with the last name King.
“Horns” has revitalized Aja’s prowess as a filmmaker and Daniel Radcliffe’s drive to be a type-less actor. It also has brought Joe Hill out of the shadows and into the light. He’s done daddy proud.
By Mike Murphy