VOD Review: Horns.
Horns is a supernatural murder mystery that suffers from poor writing, clunky dialogue, and pedestrian horror elements.
After having enjoyed Swiss Army Man immensely, I was eager to see more of Daniel Radcliffe’s post Harry Potter career. Netflix gave me a prime opportunity to catch up with Horns, a 2013 horror/murder mystery starring Radcliffe based on a novel by Joe Hill. Joe Hill is Stephen King‘s son, and his work (which I quite like) shares many elements with his father’s writing. The big screen adaptation of Horns shares quite a few elements with King’s movie adaptations…unfortunately many of them unflattering.
It reminded me a lot of Dreamcatcher, and you know how much I hated that film. Despite several strong performances, the horrendous writing and dialogue was jammed into a hackneyed murder mystery, and made me believe the devil truly walks among us.
Ig Parrish is the misfit son of a prominent family in a tight-knit New England town. He’s not as accomplished or talented as his older brother Terry, and considers himself a bit of an outsider. His saving grace is Merrin, his girlfriend since childhood. The two have a fairy-tale romance that makes them the delight of the community. Everything is going well until Merrin is found brutally murdered and Ig is put on trial for the crime.
While his childhood friend Lee is able to defend him from the court’s wrath, Ig is widely considered the devil incarnate by the townspeople for having killed poor sweet Merrin. One day, he wakes up with horns on his head that compel people to confess their deepest depraved secrets to him. Ig decides to play the devil and use his horns to find out what really happened to Merrin on that fateful night.
Ye Olde Towne
The setting and cast of this drama is about as stereotypical King as one can get. A sleepy community with a few affluent families and a hearty helping of poor, struggling sods who would like nothing more than to see the son of a big family eat some crow. The hero himself is one of a group of five children united by childhood secrets of rebellion, all of whom grow up to have a pivotal role in the supernatural drama that shakes the town. IT lite, pretty much.
The easy comparison to other Stephen King works really handicap the production. One wonders if Director Alexandre Aja was hoping to score a budget version of King’s classics by scooping up Joe Hill’s novel. The film desperately wants to be a film noir murder mystery, with Ig playing a hard-boiled loner who ferrets out the secrets of a corrupt town, but it just can’t help itself from gaudily lifting elements from King’s body of work. It also can’t help from gleefully resorting to campy horror elements.
Alexandre Aja has made his name by making horror movies. In the past, I’ve found his works like The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and High Tension (2003) to be repellent. There’s a decided note of 70’s era exploitation, where sex and violence are used to shock and titillate at the same time. That sensibility carries into Horns, where sex gets thrown into the film in odd and narrative busting moments. Ig’s horns cause people to speak their darkest secrets and to crave acting out on them, and usually that means they talk about fucking and then we see them fuck. It’s fan service in a movie that wants to be taken seriously.
The strangest moment is seeing Ig and Merrin screw, which doesn’t help either of their characters. Yeah, we’re pretty sure young lovers have sex. It’s part of the reason they’re called lovers. But if you’re going to present them as virginal and idealized (especially Merrin) then seeing them bone in a tree house doesn’t really do anything besides give the audience one more set of breasts to look at.
The film can’t decide if it wants to be a noir murder mystery or a revenge horror flick, and therefore dallies with both elements. It makes the project feel stunted and confused.
There are some good moments of both: Ig uses his powers to make the reporters who hound him literally fight each other for his story and then fucks off to a bar where he intimidates burly loggers into spilling the beans about a witness to the murder; he finds the “witness,” discovers she’s lying for publicity, and then attacks her with his demonic powers. Both are great as set pieces, but both end up being contradictory in the long run. Ig just spends too much time vacillating between being a victim and being a devil. One scene he’s the oppressed victim flabbergasted by his foes, the next he has complete control and is doling out punishment. Then back again.
The acting in this film is mostly bad, but not for lack of trying or talent. You can see that Radcliffe is trying to nail down Ig’s character, but can’t because he’s being asked to play two different and opposing motivations at once. Just as he seems to be getting into character, he has to switch, and it becomes a jarring mess. It doesn’t help that the dialogue in this film is largely atrocious.
Whose Line is It?
The film has recurring narration read by Ig, which is cringe-inducing and laced with awful lines of prose that would get a radio commercial writer fired. Characters drop completely ludicrous sentences all film long. The writing is all around terrible, and it makes the actors look foolish. The film has quite a bit of talent in secondary roles, such as James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan as Ig’s parents. They fall into the same trap set for Radcliffe, where they have a perfectly good scene going when they are forced to utter some terrible line to further the plot. Heather Graham gets the worst of it playing the fame-seeking witness, who has to churlishly smile while confessing to her duplicity. The director should have just written “glamor whore” on her forehead and saved all of us some time.
The film has moments of enjoyment, but you have to wrestle them away from the narrative. Scenes of good character development get butchered by dialogue, scenes of vital interest to the mystery devolve into sex or violence, and therefore the whole production can’t decide how to proceed. The ending is a dumpster fire of bad ideas and unneeded supernatural tomfoolery that rivals the end of Dreamcatcher for one of the worst WTF moments in film. These problems are pretty much all laid at the doorstep of the director, especially since this movie is at its worst when it is ditching the novel and doing its own thing. There could have been a good movie here, but it is executed poorly, and it destroys any real enjoyment the premise could have offered.