Review: ‘Horns’ is Dark, Devious, and Satisfying [Fantastic Fest]

By October 31, 2014
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The problem with most “young adult” novels — not to mention their subsequent film adaptations — is that they’re made exclusively for teenagers, often at the expense of anyone over the age of 20 who happened to purchase a ticket. (For every Hunger Games, there are way too many Divergents.) Producers may consider it counter-productive to combine “YA” themes with actual “grown-up” horror film components, and so we simply don’t get a whole lot of movies like Alex Aja’s Horns — a deeply romantic dark comedy/revenge thriller/straight-out horror flick that will work for 15-year-olds and ancient horror freaks at the same time.

Daniel Radcliffe (light years from Harry Potter) plays Ignatius Perrish, a sweet guy who is still madly in love with the girlfriend he is presently accused of killing. As played — via flashbacks — by the stunning Juno Temple, Ig’s lovely Merrin is the heart, the soul, and the spirit of the film. At its most basic, Horns is a “whodunnit” in which Ig must piece together some clues while doing all he can to avoid the attention of numerable suspicious characters.

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Virtually everyone in town believes that Ig killed Merrin in a fit of jealous rage, but the viewer (probably) knows better, and even at its most conventional, Horns manages to bring a strong sense of style and off-kilter wit to the sections dedicated to clues, hidden secrets, and juicy red herrings. But the film is at its best when it manages to combine a sincere and rather touching portrait of “young love” with a dark, devious, and frequently amusing gimmick.

And the gimmick is right there in the title: Horns introduces us to Ignatius and his various friends, family members, and related townsfolk; it slyly delivers the exposition regarding the tragic murder of Merrin; and then our anti-villain grows a thick and creepy-looking PAIR OF HORNS from his forehead. The horns have a fascinating effect on everyone Ig talks to: most people simply drop their inhibitions and speak up in a frank, honest, and disconcerting fashion. Others see Ig’s horns and immediately fall prey to their most basic instincts. So yeah, Horns has quite a bit of sex, violence, and pitch-black humor…

All of which serve to make the core of the film (that’d be Radcliffe and Temple) shine. The couple don’t share all that many scenes together, what with Merrin being dead when the film begins, but when they do share the screen, the result is simply fantastic. Toss in a great supporting cast that includes James Remar, Joe Anderson, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan, Max Minghella, and Heather Graham, and Horns hits the screen feeling like half an indie, half a slick studio film, and an unexpectedly satisfying movie on the whole.

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And I didn’t even cover the great music, the scene-stealing work from an actor named Kelli Garner, and a few Stand By Me-style flashbacks that actually complement the main story in clever fashion. Kudos as well to first-time screenwriter Keith Bunin for turning Joe Hill’s celebrated novel into its own film, and not a paint-by-numbers transliteration of the source material.

P.S. Daniel Radcliffe is simply great here. If you’re expecting this guy to remain “Harry Potter” forever, prepare to be disappointed.

[We’ve republished our review from this year’s Fantasic Fest. Horns is in theaters now.]
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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.
  • Lee Mun Lim

    what is wrong with the source material?

    • Matt Aaron Harper

      No one said anything about there being something wrong with the source material.

      • Lee Mun Lim

        Joe Hill’s celebrated novel into its own film, and not a paint-by-numbers transliteration of the source material. whats wrong with a paint by numbers transliteration of the source material? Have you seen the maze runner? Did you read the book why do they change the maze exit and the codes? Are they saying we are stupid?

        • Matt Aaron Harper

          A literal, word-for-word adaptation is basically pointless. The movie is never going to match what we saw in our heads while we read the book, so it’s much better to try to stand on its own as a strong film. Look at the Potter movies. They leave out large swaths of information that, while wonderful to read, would only have bogged down the main plot in the films. They are nowhere near word for word but do exactly what they need to. It’s the difference between something like Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” being about 75% accurate to the book and ending up an absolute horror classic and the 90’s “Shining” miniseries being 99% accurate to the book and impossible to watch.

          • Lee Mun Lim

            Yeah look at it! people are still asking about the friggen stuff if they had read the books!

        • Ashley

          I did hate how the changed the ending of the Maze Runner, I’m sure it wont make an impact on the movie series, but as a fan of the books it was rather upsetting to see such a massive change at such a critical moment. I’m also not sure what they meant by “paint by numbers.” Nothing is wrong with sticking to the source material.