I’ve got to be one of the few Millennials who formed no opinion of Daniel Radcliffe during his Harry Potter years. I never had any interest in the books, and although I know I’ve seen the first HP movie, I couldn’t even begin to guess at what happened (something about owls and Maggie Smith?). It wasn’t until The Woman in Black that I really discovered him for the talent he is. It was a fairly meh horror flick that at least tried to be excellent rather than just settling for lazy scare tactics. But Radcliffe himself was impressive, an anchor in a sea of mediocre dialogue and stellar production design. He blew me away again as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. Kid’s got some serious acting chops.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to bits to hear he was cast as Ig Perrish in Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns (not least of which was because it meant Shia LeBeouf was no longer up for the part). Horns is my favorite thing Hill’s ever crafted, and one of my favorite books in general. With the death of the Locke & Key TV show, I was more eager than ever for a Hill adaptation, particularly one with Radcliffe in the titular role.
When Ig Perrish’s ex-girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) turns up raped and murdered under a treehouse in the woods, he is the sole suspect. There isn’t enough evidence to convict him, but there also isn’t enough to clear him either. Not that it matters. The turncoat townsfolk and vulture-like reporters have decided he’s guilty enough. His only supporters are Terry (Joe Anderson), his druggy musician brother, and his best friend and lawyer Lee Tourneau (Max Minghella).
One morning after a particularly liquor-fueled rage against God, Ig wakes up with a pair of devil’s horns growing out of his forehead. Everyone who sees them tells him terrible secrets he never wanted to know – a doctor reveals that all he wants to do is get high on Oxy and check out his daughter’s friend’s ass, a little girl asks for permission to burn her mother alive, a waitress (Heather Graham) gives a false statement to the cops so she can ride Iggy’s prison-striped coattails to fame and fortune, his parents (James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan) wish Ig would go away so they can finally be happy again – but he can also compel them to do his bidding.
This is where the movie goes from a darkly comic supernatural fable to a middling mystery as Ig sets about using his horns to figure out who killed Merrin. Between the red herring and the real killer, the reasons behind her murder aren’t as satisfying as they should be. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but what I’m getting as is that the book does a much better job of exploring the events that lead to her murder than the movie. In the movie, the killer isn’t given enough depth or dimension to be anything more than your run-of-the-mill creepy asshole. Fortunately, horror is what Aja does best (Haute tension was bloody terrifying), so although the end comes on with all the intensity and emotional exposition of a freight train, it still manages to be an effective and chilling resolution.
Aja’s Horns is good. It’s also rocky, abrupt, and more visually extraordinary than substantive. When Hill plays with tone, he has several hundred pages to do so, whereas a film has to establish what it’s all about relatively quickly. The script by Keith Bunin, a playwright and Black List screenwriter, can’t decide if his Horns is a horror movie, a big screen procedural, or a modern day demon Alternate Universe version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Bunin flits from one tone to another, and none of them seem to blend together very well. And with such drastic changes between the book and script, when the Hill-created stuff gets ported over Bunin and Aja more or less just graft it onto their story, regardless of whether or not it fits well with the new direction.
That’s not to say I mind that it’s not a straight retelling. I’m all for reimaginations. If I want Joe Hill’s Horns, I’ll read the book. But it would be nice if Aja and Bunin got a little closer to the high water mark set by Hill. Many of the changes are minor and go down easy: the story is no longer set in New Hampshire but Washington state; Glenna (Kelli Garner) works at a dive bar (not called The Pit) instead of a salon; Hannity (Michael Adamthwaite) gets promoted to a cop; Lee is a public defender rather than a Conservative politician’s aide; etc. A few are major enough to give me pause, specifically how they reworked Glenna, Terry, and Lee’s personalities. The film lost something crucial to Ig’s demonic development and the overall moral of the story by downgrading Glenna into a cardboard cutout of a trashy loser pining for the hero, sinning up Terry into a coked up, pathetic skeeze, and the total retcon of Lee.
I hate to keep comparing the book to the movie, because the film really should be judged on its own merits. However, and this ties back into the tonal issues and the changes foisted on the characters from page to screen, the biggest problem of the movie is that Aja and Bunin either completely misunderstood the point of the book or couldn’t figure out how to capture Hill’s point on camera. The movie is about Ig’s salvation as a fallen child of God. I won’t spoil the book, but while that is certainly part of Ig’s journey, it’s not the main thrust of it. Aja and Bunin turned the world of Horns into a relatively straightforward tale about Good and Evil, whereas Hill wrote a story that rejects that black and white morality for a world of conflicting and complementary grays.
The film is gorgeous to look at, and when Aja goes full bore on the visuals, they’re brutally spectacular. Frederick Elmes’ cinematography is densly lush and sparkling, and Robin Coudert’s score is hauntingly evocative. Terry’s demon-infused drug trip is one of the greatest film sequences I’ve seen all year, and that’s including the corridor fight sequence in Snowpiercer. Without any prior knowledge of Joe Hill’s fantastic book, Horns the movie will be a dark, spooky, funny movie. Even with the book tinting your view, it’ll be hard to not like it.
We need more movies like this, movies that aren’t like anything else you’ve ever seen. I love the MCU as much as anyone, but give me Horns (or Stoker or Snowpiercer or Obvious Child or Her or…) anyday. I want more films that eschew the norm, that refuse to be part of the Hollywood factory, that stick to their weird little indie-esque stories in a forest of blockbusters and tentpoles. So, basically, I’m telling you to go see this movie. Hell, it’s on VOD right now, as well as in theatres. You’ve no excuse for not checking it out.
Spoiler-Free Easter Eggs
- The Gremlin license plate? Luke 20:36: “Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.”
- Gideon was a dude from the Book of Judges who destroyed an idolatrous alter to Baal and Asherah and killed a bunch of Midianites at God’s behest. His name means “hewer of trees” and “destroyer.” Perfect name for a vicious logging town that obsesses over Christianity and ruins Iggy’s life.
- Eve’s Diner, established in 1947 – the same year Stephen King (Joe Hill’s dad) was born.
- Daniel Radcliffe looks more than a little like Joe Hill for a few moments as he shuffles around his apartment in the beginning. Put him in a book tee and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
- Half the time you can’t tell if Ig’s breath is just misting in the cool air or if he’s breathing smoke.
- The mysterious logging truck passing through almost all of Ig’s scenes in town…any ideas?
- Did [redacted]’s matches have an angel on them? I couldn’t get a good view, but it would make for a nice contrast to Ig’s Lucifer matches from the book.
- My rental expired before I was able to get back to it, but did anyone make out the tattoo on Daniel Radcliffe’s arm? It’s not in the book, so not cross-referencing. I know he wants to get a line from Samuel Beckett, “Try, fail, try again and fail better,” which is a very Iggy Perrish thing to do.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.