Designated as a member of the dubious-sounding Splat Pack in the early aughts —shorthand for new indie, low-budget horror directors on the rise with a proclivity for extreme violence— French filmmaker Alexandre Aja has largely held true to the loose tenets of this informal consortium, if vaguely standing out by evincing a wicked sense of humor that his severe torture-porn compatriots were sometimes missing. That profane brand of comedy was proudly on display in his 2010 3D “Piranha” remake, but of course anything resembling real wit was completely absent. That critical distinction marks his latest film “Horns”—a would-be cheeky (and yet earnest) supernatural fairytale that confuses glib flippancy for twisted irreverence, sincerity for genuine feeling and hyperventilating emo infatuation for true romance. It’s easily one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, arriving with the all the subtly of a boa constrictor gorging itself down its victims mouth and then exploding out through the torso (which indeed takes place in this movie). Based on the imaginative novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), “Horns” is also a romantic horror mystery whodunit that, considering all the other qualifiers, is about as convoluted as it sounds, making up one inelegantly composed movie.
A sickly pale Daniel Radcliffe (someone trim that chest hair and get this kid a tan, please) stars as Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, who is reeling from the violent death and rape of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). Drowning his sorrows in booze, Ig quickly becomes the prime suspect in her death and enlists his attorney/public defender best-friend Lee (Max Minghella) to defend him from his own Pacific Northwest community and a mob calling for his blood. Meanwhile, as Ig tries to unsuccessfully maintain a sobriety, he coincidentally discovers that he’s growing protruding horns from his forehead (allegorical retribution alert!). These not-so-mysterious horns give Ig strange, paranormal powers that compel complete strangers to binge and vomit up their darkest secrets with untainted fervor. Ig is initially disarmed by strangers confessing their animalistic impulses and desires, but he soon realizes this is an effective tool to uncover who actually killed his beautiful girlfriend, whom the movie romanticizes and fantasizes over constantly with dreamy, gauzy flashbacks. But as Aja paints everything with the broadest brushes, these sequences mostly fetishize the girl rather than depict a loving relationship that Ig genuinely is heartbroken over.
“Slather” is the best superlative to describe Aja’s approach to pretty much every shrill and melodramatic sentiment and sequence in the film. Opening up with an unnecessary tone deaf voiceover, Aja than quickly launches into a music montage of Ig dream-drooling over the comely Merrin set to David Bowie’s “Heroes” for no other reason that it maybe looks and sounds cool? It’s hard to tell. Baffling sequences like this are a dime a dozen in “Horns” especially when Aja decides to use music in what are mostly garish music montages. He liberally smears contemporary pop music over sequences as a convenient shortcut to whatever emotion he’s seeking Radcliffe’s character to convey; mostly the music conveys wistful nostalgia, dreamy ardor, self-pity, or manic aggression and contempt for humanity.
Radcliffe and Aja often appear to be making two different films, though to be fair, this tone-challenged movie is all over the map. Radcliffe plays every moment like a tantrum with humorless unaffectedness while Aja is generally aiming for something more impish. Until he’s not, and joins Radcliffe in sequences that are painfully earnest, emotionally phony and laughably off the mark.
Set in a vaguely “Twin Peaks”-y-ish logging town, Aja aspires for some vaguely Lynch-ian moods in quieter moments, but it’s really more as if someone like M. Night Shyamalan was doing a half-assed pantomime, and most of the time it’s incredulously silly. These fleeting moments are tossed out the window when the filmmaker decides to go big and loud. One gets the sense that Aja sees “Horns” as the perfect vehicle to merge his horror/splatter tendencies with something more mature and heartfelt, but these two modes are mostly in direct opposition and Hill’s novel needs a much finer touch than this filmmaker is clearly capable of. Mercilessly unfunny outside of a few moments when Aja’s twisted sense of humor happens to connect, don’t even ask to elucidate the how and why of the incoherent nonsense that constitutes the supernatural elements of this movie, other than don’t fuck with God (most of it described in brutal written exposition). Worse, “Horns” seems to rewrite its own supernatural rules whenever the plot deems to do so, and it’s pointless trying to get a bead on the shifting multitude of Ig’s powers.
Suffused in religious iconography, Aja cannot resist the temptation to include obvious nods (not allusions) to snakes, the Garden of Eden, pitchforks and other Beelzebub-ian imagery in case you somehow can’t understand the metaphors of sin, guilt and penance that are the movie’s equivalent of breathing oxygen.
As “Horns” wobbles to its incredulous and cartoonish conclusion —and the less said about the hollow flashback’s to Ig’s childhood romance with Merrin the better— it begins to fully fall of the rails and becomes much worse than one might imagine was possible. For all of its strained efforts to prove its romantic worth and deep feeling, the unnecessary murder/rape sequence is excruciatingly grotesque and senselessly undoes what little goodwill the movie may have earned. Somehow Aja even botches his bread and butter splattercore climax, which crescendos with jaw-dropping ridiculousness and horribly pitiful CGI. VFX across the board renders any fantastical sequence either flaccid or absurdly risible.
Co-starring Heather Graham, James Remar, Kelli Garner, David Morse and Joe Anderson as Ig’s brother —despite having perhaps the worst American accent in recent memory barely disguising the fact he’s clearly English— all of these characters are caricatures even by fairy tale archetype standards. The inverted Pinocchio effect of “Horns” is perhaps its best quality. As outsiders profess their dark desires, Ig’s horns grow longer. But it becomes clear this nice flourish is simply from Joe Hill’s novel and the filmmaker can’t really add much more finesse. And perhaps at a breezier 90 minutes, his inane excuse for a demonic-rife fairytale might have been more tolerable, but at a tortuous two hours plus, each minute is like pitchfork spike to the cortex of the brain.
Disastrously misjudging all would-be authentic moments of grief, longing or affection, “Horns” has all the emotional sophistication of a toddler. And while the black comedy elements occasionally hit their marks, the negotiations of all these disparate moods is anything but seamless. Meant to be a romantic story of sacrifice, iniquity and tragedy set to the allegories of demons literal and metaphorical, the film demonstrates that Alexandre Aja is far too out of his depth to handle anything beyond simile. When “Horns” thankfully concludes, relief sets in; this hellishly misguided effort concludes with an inferno and sequels are never sprung from the equivalent of a mouthful of ash. [D-]