HORNS Fantastic Fest Review
The trick to reading Joe Hill‘s Horns is to understand that it is a farce rather than a horor novel for most of its page count. That makes Horns something of a tricky proposition for anyone adapt and it made me a bit nervous that Alexander Aja was announced as a director, tonal control not really being among his merits. At his worst Aja’s work has a real mean spiritedness to it that can poison his films, which made him an odd fit for Hill who balanced his dark deeds with a genuine humanism. But for most of its runtime Horns makes so many good decisions that it can’t help but feel dismaying and baffling when it begins to make so many bad ones in its final turn.
Horns follows Ig Perrish, a kid in his mid twenties who becomes a wreck when his girlfriend is murdered and just about everyone assumes that he did it. He wakes one morning to discover a pair of Horns growing out of his head. Anyone he meets instantly confesses their worst impulses and deeds to Ig, and Ig can make them act on those thoughts.
Horns isn’t a perfect novel, it has some weird structural issues, there are way too many damn tortured puns in the last hundred pages and it’s the kind of book whose idea of sophisticated religious satire is to name a character “Father Mould”. But its best scenes crackle with a dark comic frisson and unpredictable energy. Hill’s creates gothic imagery that lingers in the mind and his compassion for his characters gives things a genuine tragic weight. Underlying all of it was a take on the idea of the devil that was kind of ingenious. Namely that if such a creature did exist. Someone who was privy to the worst impulses and deeds of everyone they met, who could blame him for being a misanthrope? Who could be blamed for acting as a tormentor to humanity when humanity showed it nothing but its worst face?
And for most of its runtime Horns gets this. Aja straightens out a lot of the books structural kinks, moves the action to the direct aftermath of the murder instead of keeping the year gap of the book and judiciously trims the right subplots. There are a few other alterations, the film is structured as a mystery and avoids even the oblique explanation for Ig’s condition given in the novel. There are the usual problems bringing any book to film, an unnecessary voice over here, a character who gets the short shift there (poor Merrin comes off the worst loses most of her depth). But they feel minor and are overshadowed by the movie’s strengths. Aja has always had a talent with imagery and he brings some of Hill’s best to life, the snakes that follow Ig around like a living carpet, the decaying foundry and the treehouse (no longer of the mind) in the forest. He draws a lot of great atmosphere from the cathedral forests (moved from New England to The Pacific Northwest) and the initial scenes of Ig’s confusion, horror and final embrace of his powers is played to the bleakly comic hilt. The glee with which people embrace their worst natures when given permission gives Aja a chance to work out his inner misanthrope in a constructive fashion, and he’s aided by Daniel Radcliffe whose does the best work in his career in truly committed performance. And then the wheels fall off.
After solving the structural issues of Hill’s book, Aja decides to add a few structural issues all of his own. Stopping the film dead in its tracks at the end of the second act for a trio of scenes in which Ig does his best impression of a character from a slasher movie for some reason. This is capped off by an embarrassingly bad drug freak out scene that plays like the bastard love child of Jack Chick and Rudy Ray Moore. Its momentum thoroughly killed Horns, lurches through some stop start sequences that feel like they were selected by Aja by flipping through the book at random. Horns limps into a climax that replaces the moral ambiguity and poeticism of the books ending for a confused semi coherent mumble, whose muddled message and theology that I don’t even want to touch.
It’s difficult to express the dismay I felt during the last forty minutes of Horns, as I watched with horror as my score ticked lower and lower with each passing scene. I really wanted to love this thing, what’s more for a long portion of its runtime I did love it. Horns comes so damn close. It’s like watching a man walk a tightrope almost the entire way only to slip on the final step and plunge to the hard unforgiving floor below.