The further I get from Alexandre Aja’s Horns, the more I appreciate it. And, no, I do not think the fact that — apart from the local single showing of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at The Carolina — the only other Halloween season offering is the miserable Ouija much enters into it. It has more to do with Horns being a horror picture that dares to take some pretty big risks in a realm where risk-taking is rare. Yes, its basic concept is a little on the silly side. And, no, its blend of increasingly dark comedy, satire on modern society, horror and tragedy doesn’t always work. Sometimes, in fact, it’s pretty clunky, and the earlier stabs at dark comedy are too broad. I could also note — if this is even important — that it blows its central whodunit mystery early in the game. But Horns is invariably entertaining and — better still — it’s a horror movie with more on its mind than making you jump or grossing you out.
I am by no means a big admirer of French horror master Alexandre Aja. In fact, the only film of his I’ve liked is the generally reviled Mirrors (2008), which I admire more for its tone and intensely creepy visuals than for its tone-deaf dialogue. (I do maintain that the film had the misfortune of arriving on the scene at a point where supernatural horror was out of favor and torture porn was the going thing.) Here, working from TV writer Keith Bunin’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel, Aja is on firmer ground than in his self-penned screenplays. How closely this follows Hill’s novel, I can’t say, but if Hill writes anything like his father — Stephen King — I’d guess it’s at least a close approximation, especially as concerns the small town feel and the story grounded in childhood events.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ig Perrish, a local radio DJ, who awoke one morning — after a fight with his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), and a drunken blackout — to find that she’s been murdered. The public nature of their fight, the evidence of onlookers and his inability to recall much of what happened after their fight have the public, the police and the media all convinced that Ig killed her. His life has, in fact, become a living hell in the aftermath, despite the fact that his attorney, Lee Tourneau (Max Minghella), has kept him out of jail for lack of credible physical evidence. The radio station has taken him off the air, his favorite watering hole no longer wants his patronage and throngs of TV news crews dog his every step.
Things take a turn for the strange, however, when — following an outburst where he trashes and defiles a religious shrine to Merrin — he mysteriously sprouts the horns of the title. Whether or not this is some outward manifestation of his guilt, the horns produce the curious side effect of making anyone in his presence tell the truth — and, in some cases, act on it. At first, this is used strictly for comic effect — some of which works as wicked commentary on hypocrisy, some of which falls rather flat. The most satisfying use of this is the sequence where Ig promises an interview to whichever news reporter wins a free-for-all slugfest. But he soon realizes that the effect of the horns forces people to tell him the truth about the events of the fatal evening. Unsurprisingly, people know more than they’ve told — either out of a desire for media attention, or for purposes of self-preservation. Some of the information — like his brother Terry (Joe Anderson) revealing that he knows much more than he’s told — is harsh, but useful. Some of it is less seriously themed. Occasionally, the information — learning his parents believe him guilty — is heartbreaking.
There’s more than this to his transformation when he learns he can control snakes — and by the end, the film’s growing darkness has become quite grim, even if it remains more horror fable than outright horror. The performances generally help, and this despite the fact that the film’s four central performers — Radcliffe, Temple, Anderson, Minghella — are all Brits affecting American accents. (Anderson pretty much falls back on the vaguely New Jersey tones he used in 2007’s Across the Universe). The mixture of genres — really, the movie’s refusal to be just one thing — is going to be off-putting to some, but the fact that all its components ultimately coalesce into a vision of a horror tragedy pulls it through. Rated R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, disturbing violence including a sexual assault, language and drug use.