Shot a stone’s throw from “The Twilight Saga” and aimed at roughly the same crowd (more teens, fewer moms), “Horns” presents a slightly edgier, yet harder-to-love supernatural romance, giving Daniel Radcliffe demonic powers that his emo character can use to solve the mystery of his g.f.’s murder. While tame compared with “High Tension” director Alexandre Aja’s hard-R-rated gore-fests, this overly devout adaptation of Joe Hill’s sacrilegious text benefits from the helmer’s twisted sensibility, but suffers from a case of overall silliness. Regardless, the darkly comedic tone and tear-jerking ending should make this brooding genre-bender a solid performer among auds of the right age.
The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival alongside two other Radcliffe pics, and the cumulative effect is clear: The scruffy young star refuses to let his career be defined by Harry Potter. While “Horns” overlaps somewhat, hailing from the sort of fantastical literary effort J.K. Rowling’s younger readers might sample once their teenage rebellion sets in, the role of Ig Perrish is conceived as a far more tortured antihero than anything Radcliffe has played before.
Having recently lost the bosomy young love who took his virginity (Juno Temple, extending a long streak of tarty typecasting), Ig is now ignominious within his small logging town (flopped from New Hampshire to the Pacific Northwest for those misty, mossy “Twilight”-style locations). Reporters follow him everywhere, asking Ig what it’s like to get away with murder, and the locals have turned against him, all but his family and childhood friend Lee (Max Minghella), the public defender he’s hired to be his lawyer.
Out of sheer frustration, Ig turns away from God, and the next thing he knows, bony projections are forcing their way from either side of his forehead. While not much help in making the case for his innocence, the horns come with certain helpful side effects, which the script doesn’t trust audiences to figure out for themselves, laying out the rules in leaden bits of exposition: Characters start to confess their darkest impulses around Ig, remarking on the fact that they don’t remember what they’ve told him and instantly forget that he has horns the moment they look away.
A visit to the clinic to have the budding antlers removed backfires, inspiring arguments in the waiting room and a sexual tryst between the doctor and his nurse in the operating room. Ig suddenly seems to have this effect on everyone, and before long, he’s carrying a pitchfork and attracting poisonous snakes — all of which make for amusing interactions, though most come off rather clumsy in the execution.
Part of the trouble stems from the fact Aja is reaching beyond his wheelhouse here. Tension and gore come naturally (a little too much so, to the extent that he seems to be having more fun with the bloody finale than the journey that gets him there), while the simplest human interactions feel forced. It doesn’t help that Keith Bunin’s script telegraphs everything so far in advance that audiences can solve the mystery the moment the real killer appears onscreen.
Though “Horns” doesn’t follow the paces of any specific genre, blending everything from tongue-in-cheek supernatural horror to grounded “Stand by Me”-style coming-of-age scenes (including a terrific near-death encounter on a log slide), the plot essentially reduces to that of just another routine procedural: Who killed Merrin? The trouble is, while sexy as hell, the half-naked Temple seems even saucier than the town slag (Kelli Garner).
“Are you horny?” Merrin asks Ig in the opening scene — a pun that sets the pic’s cleverness bar awfully low from the outset. The emotional ending that made the young ladies cry in Toronto isn’t earned, but rather, a cheap sympathy play designed to absolve the parade of sinful activity that’s come before. The production benefits enormously from its Vancouver environs, and nifty makeup appliances help balance so-so digital effects. Radcliffe looks good in horns. It would seem he has a little devil in him after all.