Usually when writing a review, I tend to structure it like this: opening paragraph of context about said film, followed by plot synopsis, my opinions and an overall summary of whether it’s worth a watch. In the case of Horns, the new movie from French director Alexandre Aja (best known for recent remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha), any constructive criticism flies out the window straight away. It’s a train wreck of a movie that tries to fit into as many genres as possible and ends up fitting into none – I have no idea who this film is aimed at (horror fans? Twi-hards?), but it seems unlikely that any audience member will walk away from it feeling anything other than bemused disappointment.
Based on a novel by Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King, Horns stars Daniel Radcliffe as a man accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend (an under utilised Juno Temple) following a messy breakup. Just like in Gone Girl, everybody in the town presumes he’s guilty and he’s continuously harassed by local news media who want him to confess to them. Unlike Gone Girl, he grows giant devil horns on the side of his temple (a massive coincidence considering how religious his girlfriend was) which are only visible to those who aren’t wearing a crucifix around their neck. These horns also make non-believers commit acts of sin and confess to whatever prejudices they may hold, not entirely unlike the green clarinet sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look. Soon, his family and friends are telling him how much they despise him and he sets out on a one man mission to prove his innocence to a community that doesn’t want to hear what he’s got to say.
One of the clearest problems the film has is its genre. It’s not scary enough to be a horror, not funny enough to be a comedy, too “adult” to be embraced by the “YA” crowd and far too infantile to be embraced by the “A” crowd. Horror-comedy is one of the hardest genres to get right, with many films in that genre often failing on both accounts, with only skilled directors of a Sam Raimi or Edgar Wright calibre being able to effortlessly pull it off. To its credit, Horns did make me laugh out loud far more than most comedies this year, but it was always unintentional. This is a film which contains the line “are you horny” (directed at a pre-horning Radcliffe) as the second spoken line of dialogue, and thinks it’s a good enough pun to repeat as one of the closing lines as well.
The majority of the laughs derive from the heavy handedness of the biblical metaphors used here. Anybody who has seen Se7en knows that the seven deadly sins didn’t originate from the bible, yet that hasn’t stopped filmmakers trying to use them as biblical concepts; although we do see variations on gluttony and pride, the only sin that Aja is interested in showing us is lust. The sight of Daniel Radcliffe’s horns seem to turn everybody in the town to sex maniacs, with bizarre (and irrelevant to the plot) interludes involving bystanders discussing everything from “black cocks” to “whacking off” over murder victims.
Most of these are presented in scenes where they explain how they are married or in a relationship, therefore are committing the sin of adultery. Later on, Daniel Radcliffe gives two seemingly homophobic policemen “the horn” as he starts embracing his power to make people do bad things. Said policemen start having relations, a scene which is made problematic due to the exposition beforehand where Radcliffe tries to convince them that “gay sex isn’t a sin”. As it doesn’t clarify whether they are married and cheating, this leads to the obvious conclusion that in the archaic and plain wrong worldview of the movie that gay sex is a sin – why else would the devil incarnate specifically convince them to do it, especially when he didn’t bother telling anybody else?
Another problem in a film characterised by them was that I had no idea when this was set. Flashback scenes to Radcliffe’s childhood appear to be set in the early 90’s, with kids wearing Nirvana and G’N’R T-shirts and Pixies blaring on the soundtrack. Yet that would mean his character would be in his 30’s were this the present day, and why would Wikipedia lie about the character’s age being 26? A film needs a concrete sense of time and place (at one point I saw a signpost for Seattle being 150 miles away, which isn’t enough to go on) to be believable, even in fantasy genres. By making the entire town feel like a place out of time I’m assuming the filmmakers have tried to make it relatable to audiences, yet have made it as equally alien as the townsfolk upon contact with the horns.
For all its problems, I urge you to watch this movie, if only to understand how plain stupid the final fifteen minutes is. This is when you realize the film you’re watching isn’t a Dogma-style religious satire, but a religious horror movie. Exorcism films always use the crucifix as a way to beat the devil, yet never come across as preaching Christian or catholic values. Despite being more excessive than them in terms of what is depicted onscreen, Horns has the overshadowing feeling of preaching moral values to the audience. Not only are these values as confused as the film’s grasp on genre, it’s a bit hypocritical to preach to the audience after showing us a plethora of degrading sex scenes and a man’s head getting violently blown off.