Alexandre Aja’s Horns is the rare YA-ish romance that doesn’t make like a guidance counselor and force the characters to shake hands and forgive. It’s a biblically tinged, eye-for-an-eye vengeance thriller about an emo boyfriend named Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) whose childhood sweetheart Merrin (Juno Temple) has been murdered underneath the treehouse where they wooed. The folks in his Washington State town are convinced he’s guilty, as are the crews of the news vans that centipede behind him as he tries, futilely, to escape without making things worse by, say, peeing on her memorial candles. He’s not much for self-control or acting innocent. “You think I’m capable of murder?” he snarls. “Just put me in a room with the guy who really killed her.” Easy there, O.J.
Everyone sees Ig as Satan — a point the local paper hammers home with the headline, “Is This the Face of the Devil?” — so it’s only fitting that, after drunkenly shagging a tattooed blonde (Kelli Garner), he wakes up to find he’s sprouted a pair of curving horns. Not only do these spikes make his public image literal, the horns have the ability to pry the truth out of people whether Ig wants to hear it or not. He just has to stand there while the bewitched bug out their eyes, fess up to their worst inner thoughts, and violently make them real. Instead of moping (or rather, in addition to it), he becomes a hoodie-clad, horn-bespoked gumshoe hunting down the next clue.
Ig learns things he’d rather not know. His dad (James Remar) is certain he’s a killer, his mom (Kathleen Quinlan) just prays he and those camera crews will go away forever, the local priest suggests suicide. Meanwhile, his neighborhood best friend (Max Minghella), now a public defender, vows to clear his name, while Ig’s jazz-musician older brother (Joe Anderson, one of the best character actors we have) would rather keep gigging and pretending everything is dandy.
The producers were smart to cast Radcliffe, who’s always had the air of a martyr. Just picture him in a retro Technicolor blockbuster about St. Sebastian, the moppet stuck through with arrows. Thanks to the eight Harry Potter films, he’s suffered more than any male lead outside of the Saw franchise — his big blue eyes were made to well with tears. But Radcliffe wasn’t smart to tell the producers yes. This is high-toned horror that doesn’t realize that it’s deeply silly. There’s red lights casting hellish shadows on Radcliffe’s face and goth covers on the soundtrack (Ig is, of course, an alt-DJ). He can’t even break a bottle without the soundtrack caking on a thunderclap.
Most oppressively, every inch of Horns is choked in religious metaphor that strangles the fun from the film. Aja clutters the movie with golden crosses and Garden of Eden snakes, but doesn’t dare wrestle with the theology behind them — this is a snapshot of a steak, not a full meal.
Writer Keith Bunin is saddled with a tricky hook, thanks to the original novel by Joe Hill. Not only do Ig’s horns force honesty from people; when he touches anyone’s arms, he can see their past. It’s an odd setup for a murder mystery, as it precludes deduction and suspense; cracking the case is just a question of pulling the right levers. At least Horns can salvage its premise for cheap, effective laughs. At a bar where Ig demands information about the slaying, a burly drunk drops his pants and says, “I really want to show everybody my dick.” At the doctor’s waiting room, a woman next to him blurts, “It’s true what they say about black cock!” and when Ig grabs her arm, he has a vision of her porking her golfing instructor. Eventually, Ig gets exasperated with the reporters, and jokes, “How about you guys beat the shit out of each other, and the winner gets an exclusive with me?” They do.
By the time two macho cops start undoing each other’s zippers, the film has convinced us that the major secrets of the human psyche are all sex, with a swath of self-interest. The only real saint in the picture is the departed Merrin, the sort of impossibly sweet innocent that country songs love to kill off. Temple specializes in fragile weirdos (Killer Joe, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), but here Aja allows her to be otherworldly wonderful — if saddled with a wig so cheap, it makes it clear the entire cosmetic budget was spent on Radcliffe’s antlers. Being as Horns resembles a mutated, kiddie version of Gone Girl, we’re expecting a twist, but the revenge fantasies here are too simple for narrative depth. Here, men are dogs and girls are doomed. And before and after the blood flows, Aja reassures us of the young couple’s true love by cutting back to a sunny, semi-erotic flashback where Ig and Merrin kiss in the grass. “Are you horny?” Ig coos. She has no idea.