Okay, let me state for the record right out of the gate here that Alexandre Aja’s 2013 cinematic adaptation of Joe Hill’s well-regarded horror/fantasy novel HORNS (which never made it to theaters in my area but is now available via Netflix instant streaming as well as on Blu-ray and DVD) is a flick that I was rooting for before I’d ever even seen it. I’m a fan of most of Aja’s previous efforts (yes, even PIRANHA 3D) and, while I haven’t read the book, I definitely consider Hill’s Locke And Key to be one of the best comics of the past couple of decades, so — yeah, this one had all the makings of a “dream team” pairing for genre aficionados such as myself. What could possibly go wrong, right?
Now, if I’m being perfectly frank, I have to admit that not much does — the film is well-cast, lavishly shot, has a reasonably involving story, and snappy, intelligent dialogue. Hill didn’t write the screenplay, that task having been passed to Keith Bunin, but it’s easy to see from this movie alone why his work has such a large and loyal legion of fans — he utilizes the trappings of “dark fantasy” in order to tell stories that are relevant to the human condition and creates interesting and relatable characters along the way resulting in a “finished product” that isn’t entirely dissimilar in flavor and tone to the work of, say, a Neil Gaiman, but has enough of a unique twist to brand it as something entirely its own. All in all, then, you’ve gotta say “so far, so good.”
But maybe that’s the “problem,” unfair as it is, right there. HORNS is just kinda — well, good. Which is fine. It beats being bad (unless you’re in the mood for a bad flick). Still, I have to be honest — it comes within such close “sniffing distance” of being great that to see it fall short, as it ultimately does, is more than a tad bit disappointing.
Here’s the thing, though — trying to pinpoint exactly where it goes “wrong” is almost an exercise in futility and ends up making me sound like I’m bitching about a movie that gets it right at almost every turn. My mom taught me never to sound ungrateful, and it’s generally pretty good advice, but a closer examination of Horns does, in fact, bring its flaws to the surface at least somewhat readily, and so, in that spirit, and despite the fact that I almost feel like I should be apologizing for doing so, let me now reluctantly lay out my case for why this movie just ain’t “all that.”
Ig Perrish (Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe) isn’t the most popular guy in his Pacific northwestern town (yes, this was shot in Vancouver) since they found his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) dead out in the woods. Ig’s always been something of an outsider, and everybody’s surer than sure that he’s responsible for her murder. Plus, as events play out, it turns out that most every other guy he knows —including his brother, Terry (played by Joe Anderson), and best friend/attorney, Lee (Max Minghella) — had the hots for his old lady, too. Shit, even his dad (James Remar) was’t entirely immune to her charms. Killing your girlfriend is bad enough, but when she’s the most popular lady in town, that can only add to your troubles.
Of course, Ig didn’t do it — no “spoiler” there. But that set of horns that suddenly starts growing out of his head? Well, shit like that tends to make a guy look guilty. And he seems to developing a strange sort of control over snakes. And everyone in town seems to be telling him their most intimate secrets for no reason at all. How do horns, snake control, and mind control all go together? That, friends, is a darn good question.
It’s also one that Aja, Hill, and Bunin never answer. Simply put, for the most par they’re plot contrivances explicitly designed to move the story forward and have no real purpose beyond that. Maybe the origins of each of these individual pieces of “high weirdness” is fleshed out a bit more on the printed page, but here they all just kinda happen, and while the horns are an obvious and pretty blunt metaphor for anything that makes a person different, the whole snakes thing and the “I’m gonna bare my soul to you outta the blue” thing don’t even fit into the story’s admittedly obvious “let’s not judge others based on appearances” theme.
Which, again, isn’t to say that they don’t “work” in terms of what they’re supposed to do — only that what they’re supposed to do apart from give the writer an easy way to nudge the proceedings along is never made clear in the least. And that’s probably why HORNS is, ultimately, something of a let-down as far as viewing experiences go. It’s a great-looking film, with fine performances all around (especially on Radcliffe’s part) that immerses its audience in an intriguing, well-structured fantasy world that’s close enough to our own to be believable, but different enough to be interesting. The supporting players all acquit themselves well and it’s nice to see talented, but under-utilized, performers like Heather Graham, Kathleen Quinlan, and David Morse get material worthy of their skills and abilities. There’s a semi-generous helping of nudity, sex, and gore for us sleaze-hounds. There’s a strong element of the supernatural for those who dig that sort of thing. The characters are well-developed, fleshed-out people that you actually care about.
And yet — it’s all just a bit too obvious. The horns on Ig’s head twist and turn but they’re not that sharp. The film ticks every box on the “must-haves in every horror story” checklist right in front of your face, and either comes up with a “the moral to this story is —” reason for their inclusion, or just blows off providing a reason entirely, content in its own ability to win you over through sheer technical competence, which it has in spades. But it’s all brain with very little heart . It could be damn near perfect— if it wasn’t trying so hard to be precisely that.