As far as award-winning fantasy novels go, Joe Hill’s well-loved Horns without doubt falls onto the weirder side of the spectrum. Exploring a whole host of themes ranging from the biblical to the down-right surreal, Hill’s much-celebrated work has been awaiting adaptation since almost its initial release. Now, four years on, prolific horror director Alexandre Aja takes the reigns of the cult-favourite tale, offering up an extended visual interpretation of Hill’s crazed little world.
Horns finds Ignacious ‘Ig’ Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) waking one morning following the murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) to find goat-like horns sprouting from his forehead. If that isn’t weird enough, he also soon finds that said growths are of no care to any of his friends or neighbours, and that suddenly everyone is more than happy to reveal their darkest and innermost thoughts to him, and that his influence on their lives has suddenly grown exponentially. In the midst of defending himself in Merrin’s murder trial, Ig pledges to use the horns and his new-found powers to uncover who really killed his lover and clear his name for good. But as he begins to descend deeper and deeper into the mystery of the killing, the horns start to take on a life of their own and Ig gradually finds himself becoming powerless to their evil charms.
To claim that Horns has quite an ‘odd’ set-up may be somewhat of an understatement, and it’s this devout eccentricity that sits at the heart of the film that serves as both its strongest and weakest element. Aja drags Hill’s grim and often rather sinister universe onto the big-screen complete with all of the wacky visuals and pitch-black humour required, and does so, at least visually, fairly well. Ig’s nightmarish visions are crafted with a steady hand, remaining bleak but never fully descending into the midsts of horror, with plenty of well-wrangled imagery to draw one in close to the film’s incredibly gloomy tone. However, whereas Aja well and truly nails Horns’ demonic aesthetic, he loses out in just about every other department. The film’s outlandish premise finds itself bogged down amongst multiple important, but poorly placed flashbacks and an incredibly thinly-veiled murder plot meaning that ultimately, nothing is ever really explained. Things simply happen all for the sake of reproducing the kookiness of Hill’s novel, and do so with very little build-up, making for a twist-laden plot that never once pays off. This becomes especially frustrating when Aja dives into the more surreal aspects of the story, leading to certain sequences that, although gorgeous to look at, appear almost completely baffling in their execution – the most bizarre imagery and plot developments simply being plucked straight out of thin air.
Sadly, this drags the entire picture into near-incomprehensible territory, a great shame for leads Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple who both provide well-rounded performances with great emotional depth. Radcliffe especially deserves praise, shaking off the reigns of his former child-star status well and truly with a tremendously vulnerable role that opens up a really rather honest romance between himself and Temple, that powers the film’s romantic backbone alone. Triumphs such as this unfortunately form only a tiny segment of Horns’ overall structure, meaning that although there are some incredibly well-formed elements to the film, ultimately they cannot save it from the unintelligible doom its director commits it to.
For a film that boasts such an intriguing and really rather weird premise, Horns trudges out onto screens both bloated and simultaneously under-thought. Despite a career-high performance from its lead and some stunning visuals, Aja’s film simply appears too random and poorly woven to ever be as affecting as it needs to, whilst also finding itself bogged down with a pessimistic and un-alluring tone. Whether a better adaptation exists out there or not no one knows, but from this attempt, it’s plain to see that the sheer lunacy of Joe Hill is no easy feat to manage.
Horns (2014), directed by Alexandre Aja, is released in UK cinemas by Lionsgate, Certificate 15.