Say what you will about Alexandre Aja’s Horns, but it is a looker. Photographed by Frederick Elmes, who spent his strongest days lensing slices of dirty, surrealist Americana for David Lynch like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart, the film’s version of the Pacific Northwest – filtered through the piece’s relentless weirdness – often recalls a diluted Lynch at his best. Logs cut through the screen with a lush, romantic hue that ironically captures the forested expanse as a jungle ready to swallow the everyday suburbia of the film. Elsewhere, sequences surrounding a quintessential American icon – the diner – pervert the locale to a darkened, neon-hued collage of red and blue that Lynch himself would have appreciated. The look isn’t a surprise – Aja isn’t the most capable of filmmakers, but he has passion, and he knows his forebearers. With an opportunity to play in Lynch’s Twin Peaks territory, he clearly knew who to fan-boyishly turn to, and he arguably found the perfect cinematographer for his vision.
It is too bad that he did not know how to pick a screenplay, or how to handle a questionable one. The on-paper material by Keith Bunin is, charitably speaking, a tonal wreck, traipsing from gallows humor to fairy-tale romanticism to grotesque thrills to faulty drama in the span of seconds and succeeding fully at none. We follow young Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) as he wakes up the primary suspect in the murder of his longtime girlfriend Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). Hounded by reporters and struggling to prove to his family and friends that he is innocent, he finds that his newest problem may also be his greatest blessing: horns growing out the top of his head that also, miraculously, grant him the ability to receive the inner secrets of everyone around him. He finds that people are generally unaffected by the sight of his horns, and they take to opening up to him even when he doesn’t ask, lowering their social inhibitions and uncontrollably informing him of how they really want to live their lives (and in most cases, acting on those desires immediately). A plus that allows Ig to, let us say, force others to reveal to him the truth, and in certain cases, to make others do his bidding on his quest to discover who really killed Merrin.
Not a bad set-up, but from there the film goes to hell, careening from inspired moments of darkly macabre fancy and crimson fury to lamentable excursions in misogyny (a waitress is treated with an unmistakable contempt) and suspect moralizing. As an episodic slurry of set-pieces, Horns isn’t half-bad, but these patchwork moments are wholly unable to maintain a consistent tone even within individual scenes. The film often veers oddly into saccharine innocence and genuine drama, both of which are in turn smothered immediately afterward by the drop-off to oddball comedy horror that tries so desperately to worship at the Sam Raimi alter without any of that filmmakers eye for animation, wit, or, especially tonal balance. While Raimi kept his films barking at a fever pitch and balanced firmly between horror and comedy (indeed, his best films often made those two genres indistinguishable), Horns lumpily flops from yucks to shocks with very little idea of where its heart lies.
Which is to say nothing of the also-ran mystery centering the film, a mystery that is arbitrary from the get-go and unnaturally and mercilessly extended so that the reveal of an obvious culprit comes well after it becomes obvious to anyone paying attention. A delay that has the effect of both putting the viewer ahead of the film (no fun) and revealing the film’s somewhat smug habit of thinking it is ahead of the viewer at all times (even less fun). As for the flashbacks to Ig’s childhood life growing up with Merrin, they stop the film dead in its tracks, assuming and failing to earn our sympathy for Ig and asking Aja to adopt a tone that he is wholly unsuited for. The cornfed honesty of these sequences also clashes remarkably with the Machiavellian cynicism of the present-day material, but there isn’t enough of the romance to serve as a meaningful and subversive counterpoint to how detached Ig’s present-day world seems.
Throughout, Radcliffe – using the film as an opportunity to darken and prove his adult credentials post-Harry Potter – is the lone bright spot, excepting the visuals. He brings an honesty and commitment to the portrayal that sells Ig’s quest without giving in to the scatter-shot irony of the screenplay and Aja’s directorial tone. But it is honesty in search of a better, more focused film. Better luck next time Harry.