While none of French horror auteur Alexandre Aja‘s films made our recent post-millennium horror rundown, there were those of us who argued adamantly for the filmmaker, whose impressive resume ranges from the next-level slasher “High Tension” to the damning political satire “The Hills Have Eyes” to the looser, more jovial (but still rather pointed) “Piranha 3D.” Over the weekend “Horns,” Aja’s newest gore-soaked confection, a nimble adaptation of Joe Hill‘s 2010 novel, opened in theaters and appeared demonically on demand. We got a chance to speak with the director about the top 5 influences for his deliciously peculiar film, and they might be just as surprising as the movie itself.
“Horns” is the tale of young Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe), whose gorgeous, frequently naked young love (Juno Temple) was horribly murdered prior to the start of the movie. The townsfolk in his small Pacific Northwest logging community all believe that he did it, even though he swears up and down that he is innocent. Then, one day, after some hard drinking and questionable sex, Ig discovers a pair of horns growing out of his head. Not only is this new growth devilish looking, but it also prompts the people around him to confess their innermost secrets. This, of course, comes in handy since he is still trying to track down his girlfriend’s murderer and set things straight.
From that idea, Aja applies his usual rococo visual flourishes—snakes descend from trees, heads explode like Fourth of July (or maybe Bastille Day) fireworks, and Ig becomes, minute by minute, more hellish-looking than before.
1.) “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Yes, that’s right, the annual holiday classic inspired one of the more perverse pieces of cinema to be released this year. The connection surprised Aja too, it seems. “When I read the book and this is a weird one, because it’s so opposite what the movie is about, but it was the only thing I could think about, when grappling with so many different genres, was Capra‘s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.'” Aja went on, “I read ‘Horns’ as a reverse tale of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It’s much darker and where ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was about an angel and much more positive, this one was much more devilish version of that. That was my first big influence.” The connection, Aja says, even extended to the main character of “Horns.” “I thought the Jimmy Stewart character was very similar to Ig Parrish, in going from discovering the world in a different vision than he’s seen before to staying alive, to getting revenge for his dead girlfriend in ‘Horns.'” Yeah, we can see that. Somewhere, some clever art-house theater is already programming a double-bill with the two movies.
2.) American Photography
Since “The Hills Have Eyes,” Aja has worked exclusively on movies set in America, and with that setting comes the French filmmaker’s fascination (and often, along with it, deconstruction) of American culture and ideals. “Horns” might be his most “American” film in a sense, because he tries to genuinely explore the dynamics and desires of small town America in a way that maintains his skeptical edge while also giving a more full-hearted embrace of American quirks and specificity. So it comes as no surprise that Aja cited American photography as being a big influence for the movie. “For a long time I wanted to find a way to pay tribute to hyper-real style of American photography, like Gregory Crewdson, who were very important for me,” Aja explained. “I always loved Gregory Crewdson’s work and Gregory Crewdson’s work is inspired by the work of an amazing director-of-photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, who did ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ and ‘The Deer Hunter.’ That way of showing America was always very interesting to me and I always wanted to find a story that acted as a way of appropriating that for the big screen. So that was a big, big influence.”
3.) Biblical European Art
Of course, Aja is European, and that side also presented itself when constructing “Horns.” He said that he looked to his childhood home as another source for inspiration. “On the complete opposite side of things, I was lucky enough to grow up in France, in a town where there are sculptures and art on every corner of every street that show angels and demons, and all of them coming from this specific art period. And I would say that this art period, which depicted ‘Paradise Lost,’ was maybe the other thing that I wanted to bring,” Aja told us. He then said that this fit in with his overall visual design for the film. “I wanted to create a bridge between this hyper-real logging town America and biblical iconoclastic imagery.”
4.) “Fight Club”
There’s definitely something going on tonally with “Horns,” in the way that it oscillates between earnest drama, blood-drenched horror, absurdist humor, and back again. And this was another thing that Aja was really thoughtful about, borrowing from one of his very favorite films—David Fincher‘s instant classic “Fight Club.” “I think there was also something in the way the dark humor was dealt with in ‘Fight Club.’ That was an interesting element,” Aja admitted. He went on to say, “When you read ‘Horns,’ and when you see the movie, it seems original and quite unique. And it was hard to find a movie that was very similar to it. It was a lot of different things that you find here and there.” One of those things he found, of course, was Fincher’s 1999 oddball masterpiece. “There’s something very rock’n’roll about ‘Fight Club,'” Aja said. “With the music and with the way people act and the look was a very interesting element to bring to ‘Horns’ as well.”
5.) The Music
Another huge part of “Horns” is the soundtrack, which incorporates a bunch of rock’n’roll standards, many of them about God and the devil, together in a way that feels unique and fresh and totally appropriate for the film. “I cannot find one influence, exactly, but I wanted to create a bridge between all my favorite indie and classic rock songs that are so important to the characters because they bring about memories and are also living in that world of music. But play that against a very classical orchestral score,” Aja said (Robin Coudert, a French musician and contributing member of insanely popular pop band Phoenix, composed the score, and also contributed to the Aja-produced “Maniac” remake.)
“The same way we bridged ‘Paradise Lost’ and Kurt Cobain‘s Seattle, we also wanted to bridge the music in the same way, but opposite,” the director added. When we complimented Coudert’s great score, Aja commented on the differences between the work in “Maniac” and “Horns.” “Oh it’s so amazing because he went from something that was so eighties and electronic, which was really great. But what he did on ‘Horns’ was very different and very powerful in a very different way.”
“Horns” is in theaters now.