There aren’t too many ingenious new concepts in today’s horror and fantasy films, but I’ll be damned if Horns doesn’t come close, at least at first. It opens on two young lovers, Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) and Merrin (Juno Temple), declaring their undying love for each other. “I’m gonna love you for the rest of my life,” he tells her. “Just love me for the rest of mine,” she replies. Then, as if to illustrate the point, we jump forward some months, maybe even years. She’s dead, and he’s drunk and miserable. Strongly suspected of her murder, he is hounded every step of the way by protesters and media, refused service at bars, and otherwise given the full Gone Girl treatment. Ig is so ostracized from society that when their small Canadian lumber town has a vigil in the woods where his girlfriend’s body was found, he hides in a nearby tree house (their tree house), secretly lighting his own candle while her father decries him to the crowd below. Even his parents clearly think he’s guilty. “When they looked at me, they saw a devil,” he says. “And maybe I did, too. Now I had to look the part.” With nothing left to lose, all goodness having seemingly departed him, he smashes a statue of the Virgin Mary, pisses on it, and then has sex with a local bartender. The next thing he knows, he’s sprouted a pair of horns.
The horns are more than just signs of Ig’s debasement, however. They seem to have an effect on others. People casually notice his horns, then open up about their secret, sinful desires. His one-night stand sees his horns in the morning and tells him she wants to stuff her face full of doughnuts. He dismissively tells her to go ahead, and she does so — literally. A mother in a doctor’s waiting room confesses that she wants to beat her screaming, spoiled young daughter. Meanwhile, the little girl tells Ig she wants to set fire to mom’s bed. Inside, the doctor confesses to him that he wants to bone his own daughter’s best friend. They’re all looking for permission from him to realize the horrific acts they so clearly want to commit. He’s turned into the devil on everyone’s shoulder. And Radcliffe is pretty much perfect in the part: He’s obviously done the boy-next-door-with-spiritual-gifts thing before, and his innate humor and bewilderment lend humanity to the conceit — he gets the absurdity of the cosmic joke in which he finds himself.
As you might imagine, becoming the instant repository of everyone’s dark secrets and needs can come in handy when you’re trying to track down your girlfriend’s murderer. But to its credit, Horns doesn’t immediately focus on something so mundane as solving a crime. Rather, Ig wanders through town, among the people of his life, learning exactly what they think of him and their own lives. His mother confesses that she secretly doesn’t want him to be her son anymore. Meanwhile, Ig reflects on his relationship with Merrin. “She was my Garden of Eden,” he tells us, and it feels like more than a metaphor. Merrin was devout and went to church every Sunday; indeed, the two initially bonded as kids over a fixed rosary. Her departure, we sense, robbed him of his goodness and gave him a privileged, devil’s-eye perspective on a fallen world. (Alas, Merrin remains mostly a personality-less, ethereal female ideal throughout the film, but I suppose one could argue that she needs to stay that way in order for the story’s Manichean spiritual gambit to work.)
Horns was directed by Alexandre Aja, a French horror auteur whose films have in the past tended to be pointless, stylized exercises in sadism. Though he does have his fans; his 2003 thriller Haute Tension was a hit among genre cognoscenti. I found it mostly unwatchable, but I didn’t mind his 2010 schlockfest Piranha 3D. Here, he brings a storybooklike precision to this world, less fevered and in-your-face than usual. He’s working off an adaptation of Joe Hill’s 2010 novel, and it’s a good match. The director’s visual imagination works wonders on a story that has something resembling a shape, with incident instead of shock value.
Unfortunately, once Horns does settle in on trying to tie up its loose ends, on uncovering who did what to whom and why, a story that felt so rooted in the fantastical comes down to Earth, and not entirely in a good way. For much of its running time, the film works as a portrait of the abstract made real — on notions of sin, temptation, and salvation given physical form in Ig and his interactions with his community. Horns juggles a lot of balls, and admirably keeps them in the air for longer than you might expect. But it doesn’t know how to bring them down gently.