TIFF 2013: ‘Horns’ is a morbid and miserable supernatural YA love story with R-rated special effects

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Written by Keith Bunin
Directed by Alexandre Aja
USA/Canada, 2013

Based on the Joe Hill novel, Horns is about a young man (Daniel Radcliffe) who sprouts horns after his ex-girlfriend (Juno Temple) is murdered and raped. In the hands of director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), one would hope for a mind-bending horror story about good and evil, with a special emphasis on the latter. Unfortunately, with an underdeveloped adapted screenplay (the first feature from screenwriter Keith Bunin), Horns falls short and at best, may become some decent late-night popcorn fodder with a few quotable-because-they’re-awkward lines and a charred-up Daniel Radcliffe with horns.

As a prime suspect, Ignatius “Ig” Perrish has a massive media hubbub following his every move and his whole town taking a moral high ground against the supposed murderer-rapist, although with no concrete evidence at hand. While dealing with his figurative demons, Ig has a consolatory one-night-stand and wakes up with hard nubs on his temples. With these horns, everyone around him reveals their basest thoughts and asks him for approval to follow through on them, in turn following his every command. It’s a very bizarre device that doesn’t pay off on the whole, outside of the revealing confessions from Ig’s father (James Remar) and the local diner waitress with ulterior motives (Heather Graham, in a standout performance). Generally, the people under the horns’ spell sound laughably bizarre at best, but not in an entertaining or “so grotesque it’s interesting” way. This may be Aja’s or Hill’s burden to bear, but these rabid confessionals just do not translate well onscreen.

With such a blatant and underutilized gimmick (the horns themselves), the film also has a few twists and turns that you can see almost a mile away, thanks mostly to overplaying “good vs. evil” and invoking biblical ideas (some quotes scattered here and there) without much of a follow-through. Possibly it’s because of having watched too many Omen movies, but when the lead meets his lady love at the local church as children and then goes on to grow devil horns after she dies, wouldn’t some actual context be nice? It didn’t need to be biblical; even local folklore or made-up mythology would do, but the plot just needed an extra supernatural layer to explain why this seemingly average couple was so special that the laws of God and science bended around them. Maybe it’s as simple as that the two had been in love since first sight and that the ex-girlfriend epitomizes “purity,” with all of the unnecessary pretense and self-sacrifice that term entails. Even so, it’s still puzzling considering how many times the movie refers to her as “pure” that the manifestation of her protective spirit would turn Ig into a red-hot horned monster, albeit with some near-redeeming CGI, and protect her real killer. Although the ending is straightforward, it’s a convoluted, bloody mess getting there, literally and figuratively.

Bottom line, Horns feels like a demonic Twilight, morbid love triangle and all. However hard the actors tried (Radcliffe in particular) with the wooden script, none of the characters are compelling or even likable. Again, the plot just feels underdeveloped to be dealing with such heady abstract concepts, possibly too wrapped up in neat effects. Too bad they couldn’t have expanded Graham’s character a bit more, which would have added some needed comic relief to a film that takes its characters and itself much too seriously.

– Diana Drumm

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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