Quite often when panning a film critic will say that there’s “a good movie in there somewhere that just never gets out.” I’m no exception. There’s a decidedly interesting and potentially great film inside of Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns, but that film would only be roughly 70 minutes at best once every superfluous bit and dragged out scene gets cut down. At just barely under two hours, however, it drags, kills any sort of momentum, and beats the same drums so repeatedly that monotony sets in quickly.
Daniel Radcliffe continues his transition into more adult roles as Ig, a young man in the Pacific Northwestern United States reeling from the death of the woman he was prepared to marry (Juno Temple). Even worse, he’s become a pariah within his community and the prime suspect in her disappearance. While awaiting trial, Ig wallows in his misery, fixates on his loss, and remains determined to find her killer. One morning, after desecrating her memorial site, Ig wakes up to notice two devilish horns growing from his forehead. He also has the newfound power to get people to admit aloud their innermost thoughts, secrets, and desires of everyone around them and the ability to see into their pasts.
The set-up for Horns works precisely because Radcliffe nails the tone of Ig perfectly. He’s kind of pathetic and not exactly likable even for someone who just suffered a great loss. We want to believe that he’s in the right, and his persecution by his own parents (James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan), his drug addled musician brother (Joe Anderson), and his girlfriends’ father (David Morse) feels appropriate. His relationship to his best friend and lawyer (Max Minghella) feels appropriately uneasy given that Ig kind of stole this girl away from him when they were kids. Radcliffe has been a master at creating natural chemistry with anyone placed next to him in a scene, and this film’s strongest selling point just happens to be the young actor’s strongest personal asset.
It starts to gel nicely once things get appropriately demonic. Once Ig catches onto his new position of power, Horns almost becomes worth it for the character’s vengeful, shit eating grin alone. It’s appropriately nasty, but not the work of an antihero since it’s well established that Ig is in the right. The closer Ig gets to the truth via increasingly violent confrontations, his persona softens to a point where the devil has become wholly sympathetic.
But Radcliffe, as good as he is, can’t save this production on his own. He gets no help from first time screenwriter Keith Bunin, who delivers material so uselessly overstuffed that it feels like a first draft of a screenplay instead of something that was ready to be shot. It’s not all that surprising that Bunin’s screenplay comes from source material written by Hill, son of legendary horror author Stephen King. Horns suffers the same exact problems of most King adaptations.
The story has a lot of intricate personal relationships that aren’t that deep, but are needed to be hashed and rehashed every few minutes in laboriously painful detail. There’s an unconscionably long second act that’s an almost thirty minute, story halting flashback to when Ig was growing up – possibly the truest aping of King’s style the film offers. Every side character is given one key quirk that will be exploited at some point, and the only women present are there only to give the main character reassurance. (Although, the elder King does have several books where that’s not an issue. It’s still the norm.) The villain will be obvious in the first forty minutes thanks to obvious foreshadow and plot devices a twelve year old could figure out. Even the setting screams King even though none of it takes place in New England. Hill changed his name to distance himself from his famous father’s legacy, but the material suggests that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of what they fixate on.
Bunin’s adaptation fails because it’s the worst kind of literary adaptation: it’s a text dump. It’s clearly the work of someone who read the book, fleshed out every sequence precisely, changed things only slightly so they would work on film, and beat for beat offers no surprises. Actually, I might be speaking out of turn there. I haven’t read Hill’s book, but if Bunin deviates greatly from the source material, that makes things even worse and the screenplay actually becomes more problematic because Aja refuses to trim anything.
Aja is a great stylist and visualist, and he’s thankfully unafraid of using humour to convey darker ideas. Aja has also never made a film that makes a lick of sense. High Tension and Mirrors are beyond preposterous and way too serious, while Piranha 3D manages to be a lot of fun by never caring about the story at all, but it’s still a purposefully silly movie. Horns comes down between these two sides of Aja.
Aja keeps things funny when he needs to, and still manages to sneak in a few effective shocks every now and then. At the same time, the belaboured story somehow emboldens Aja to be excessive; as if overcompensating visually and with the story’s pacing will somehow iron out the problems of the material. This leads to sequences wearing out their welcome very fast, and for no reason. A key example of this would be a visually stunning scene about three quarters of the way in when Ig forces a character to ingest a bunch of toxins to show them what true pain is like. It looks great. It’s dragging down the story and adding nothing because the audience already knows the maximum amount of stakes the sequence will hold and that it ultimately doesn’t mean anything. It’s obviousness that’s meant to disguise predictability in a film that stopped being fun to watch long before that moment arrives.
It really stops being fun because even with the unconscionably long sequence with child actors that explains way more backstory than needs to be explained, there’s still a logical climax after only sixty minutes. The mystery is solved, there’s a fight that could be tinkered with, and the movie could feasibly end logically. The entire final hour of the film could fold inward to that scene and the resolution would make the most sense. The fact that Ig has to spend the entire SECOND HOUR of the film spinning his wheels feels like a cheat and a betrayal of the sharpness of the premise. Even worse, the film’s actual climax just takes the earlier revelation, adds a couple more characters to the fracas, and throws in some CGI and make-up effects for good measure. Precisely none of it matters because we sat through an exact variation of this scene an hour ago.
There’s an entire hour of Horns that could be cut and tossed in the bin and it would be a better film for it. I’ve watched the film twice now: once when it debuted at TIFF last year and once again for the release this year. When I saw it last year, I still thought and hour of the film should be cut, but I mildly enjoyed it for Radcliffe. When I saw it this year for a refresher for this review, I felt pained and like my time was slowly being wasted in front of me. I guess the best thing I can say about Horns is that if you feel the need to see it, once will be enough.