If you still think of Harry Potter when you see Daniel Radcliffe, then this twisted horror fable should wipe away that notion altogether.
“Horns”, which also marks an evolution for director Alexandre Aja (he’s pretty much covered the horror spectrum from his 2003 masterpiece “High Tension” to 2006’s “The Hills Have Eyes” remake to 2010’s “Piranha 3D”), is not very easily categorized. It’s a romantic tragedy, a murder mystery and a supernatural thriller all rolled into one delightfully bittersweet cocktail that doesn’t commit to any one genre for more than five minutes. While the film has the pace of a faulty carnival ride and a tone about as consistent as a clinical trial for mood stabilizers, Aja manages to dial things back just before the proceedings ever cross over into abject silliness.
We’re transported to a small seaside town where its residents believe Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Radcliffe) to be guilty of brutally murdering his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). Picketers gather on his front lawn and news reporters ask him what it feels like to get away with murder. He doesn’t have the answers they want, because as far as we know, he’s innocent. And the only one who seems to believe it is Ig’s lifelong best friend Lee (Max Minghella), who is also the public defender representing him.
But when Ig awakens one morning after a grief-induced bender to find horns sprouting from his head and the ability to persuade people into divulging their darkest, ugliest secrets, it seems like the Devil himself has arisen to vet candidates for Hell.
At first it feels like a curse, because Ig learns more about the folks in his community than he’d ever care to know: One woman admits with a smile that she’d like to kick her screaming daughter in her spoiled little ass, and a bar owner confesses to wishing his establishment would burn to the ground so he can collect the insurance money (right before dousing the place in alcohol and setting it ablaze). A doctor offers him a taste of some ground-up Oxycontin just before humping a nurse in the examination room, and a priest laughs as he suggests that Ig string himself up for his sins (even a news crew goes all fisticuffs for an exclusive interview with Ig — you get the picture).
But things gets worse than just some warped version of “Liar Liar” when he discovers what’s going on with the people closest to him. Ig’s parents are both loving and supportive on the surface, but it turns out that his father (James Remar) actually believes that he’s guilty and used connections with the police force to have some evidence destroyed (which incidentally could have cleared Ig), while mom (Kathleen Quinlan) just wishes Ig would disappear and never return.
Ig soon enough realizes that he might be able to use his newfound powers to track down the killer, which leads him down an unpleasant path that seems to get darker with every turn. A standout scene finds Ig confronting his brother Terry (an incredible Joe Anderson), a musician with an escalating drug problem, and Radcliffe doesn’t waste the opportunity to show is sinister side. He also deals with a loony, narcissistic waitress (Heather Graham) who makes up an incriminating story about Ig just to get on television (“I’m pretty enough, right?” she asks after telling him what she’s done). Flashbacks of Merrin (a Juno Temple so ethereal that she could have sprung from the pages of a fairy tale book) provide relief from the nastiness of a town seemingly going crazy with a profound sense of love and serenity, and the film occasionally finds equilibrium with David Morse in a small but critical role as Merrin’s distraught father Dale.
Unless you’ve read the 2010 Joe Hill novel on which the film is based, you’ll probably have no idea where it’s headed until the final act, where it ditches the whodunnit tone for a straight up horror vibe. Up until that point, “Horns” is so erratic but so brilliantly strange that one can’t help but remain glued to it, as the film dips into Ig’s childhood (some great scenes reminiscent of “Stand By Me”) only to re-emerge into the mini-apocalypse that seems to accompany his mounting rage.