Horns opens today in a handful of markets. Here is my original review from Fantastic Fest.
Horns, directed by Alexander Aja of Piranha 3D (which I actually sorta liked) and starring Daniel Radcliffe, is based on a novel by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. That’s the most shocking thing about it, actually, that it was based on source material. It felt like a hyperactive kid just making things up as he goes along, like he had a drawing of Daniel Radcliffe in devil horns on the table and was forced to improvise a story around it at gunpoint. I knew the film was going to be very bad about two minutes into it, when right from the word go it had that broad, objective-free acting style you typically see in insurance commercials. And it only got worse from there. It spends half the movie trying unconvincingly to resolve a plot device it never does anything with in the first place.
Ugh, okay, requisite plot summary graf. Let’s just get through this before my hands start reflexively wanking: Daniel Radcliffe plays Ignatius Parish (religious allusions that serve zero purpose will become a leitmotif here), whose beautiful, perfect, crucifix-wearing angel of a girlfriend (Juno Temple, who does get naked a little) is murdered one day. The townspeople all think Ig did it and the next thing you know, he’s growing horns. The horns make everyone he comes into contact with reveal their darkest impulses, which are more like the kind of “dark” impulses you’d see in a beer commercial – secretly gay cops, a slutty waitress, a mom who hates her hyperactive daughter, a girl eats too many donuts – all about as edgy as a JC Penney’s window display. The rub is that he has to use his powers of bringing out the worst in people to find his girlfriend’s REAL killer BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE! Haha, just kidding about that last part, there really isn’t much urgency to this seemingly-pretty-easy quest at all.
I can only assume that the idea that the guy who played Harry Potter, a series cited as Satanic by fundamentalist Christians, playing a guy with devil horns was such an attractive in-joke to those involved here that they did absolutely no development at all after that. Also, it’s hard to accept Radcliffe as the painfully earnest, sweetboy protagonist because he looks like an evil chipmunk. I can’t decide whether he looks creepier when he’s laughing or crying.
There’s a fatal flaw in Horns (see: Everything) and the best way I can describe it is that there’s an important distinction between acting and play-acting.
When I lived in New York, I was living with my girlfriend at the time who was a theater major at one of the smaller colleges there. Sometimes I’d get dragged along to see the plays put on by the undergraduate theater students, who inexplicably were encouraged to write, produce, and direct their own plays, which were up to three hours long (!!). (Film majors tend to build up to 20 minute films when they’re seniors, which makes a lot more sense, because that way the inevitably bad ones at least won’t waste that much of your time). One play was so long and pointless I left during an intermission, mistakenly thinking it was over. One was about Hurricane Katrina, another was about God, but they could’ve been about anything, really, mostly interchangeable excuses to cry, scream, beat chests, and make out with each other (respect). You know, actor stuff. Undergraduate theater majors have a tendency to enjoy the act of putting on a play divorced from the goal of telling a story, like the difference between enjoying writing and enjoying scribbling on paper. It always reminded me of that Gene Hackman line from Royal Tenenbaums, “Characters? What characters? It was just a bunch of little kids dressed in animal costumes.”
Horns is the movie version of scribbling on paper, Harry Potter the kid in the animal costume. I’m not sure anyone involved knew what they were doing beyond the vague desire to experience the process of making a movie. There’s all this religious imagery name dropped with no real purpose or desire to critique. It sort of feels like someone from my generation, we descendants of boomers who rebelled against their religious upbringings, trying to rebel against someone else’s religious upbringing we only experienced second-hand. There’s no real axe to grind, only the vague, cloying desire to please, copied totems with no context.