Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is an unpopular guy. He's been charged with murdering his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple, Killer Joe), but he's currently out on bail. Ig insists that he's innocent, but only his best friend Lee (Max Minghella, The Social Network) believes him. Then, it happens: Ig sprouts a pair of horns. Not just ordinary horns, mind you, but horns endowed with the ability to make almost anyone Ig encounters tell the absolute truth. As a result, he begins bumping into a host of people more than willing to tell him all sorts of horrible things about themselves. Eventually, Ig realizes that he might be able to use this new ability to find the real killer and clear his name.
That's a premise with a fair amount of potential, but much of that potential is squandered in the hands of director Alexandre Aja (whose work includes the frustrating High Tension, the slick-but-empty remake of The Hills Have Eyes and the cheesy, pervy Piranha 3D). There's room for compelling social commentary, wicked humor and even some genuine horror here, but Aja largely devotes himself to turning Joe Hill's novel into goofy schlock. A solid indication of the film's maturity level: it opens with the line, “Are you feeling horny?”
The “horns-as-truth-serum” scenes are simultaneously the film's most entertaining and most disappointing. The movie has fun with the various ways the horns inspire all sorts of chaos, but in the process it turns almost every supporting character in the movie into some sort of cartoonish stereotype. When people start telling the truth, it turns out that they're simple-minded buffoons of one sort or another. A witness (Heather Graham, Bowfinger) planning to testify against Ig is actually a crazed publicity-seeker. A pair of abusive cops are actually closeted gay men who constantly think about having sex with each other. A priest is actually a hateful misanthrope who harbors murderous desires. A surgeon is actually a sex addict who lacks any medical knowledge whatsoever. This stuff is mildly amusing for a while, but quickly begins to wear thin once we realize we're basically watching uninspired riffs on Liar, Liar.
The murder mystery side of the film is reasonably engaging for the film's first hour or so, but gets progressively sillier as it proceeds. The movie's final explanation of what happened (and why) feels unconvincing, and turns one of the film's few interesting characters into a stupid one. The whole thing climaxes in a clumsy display of low-budget special effects and sloppy writing, as any remaining traces of nuance or thoughtfulness are thrown out the window in favor of hyperbolic spectacle.
Somehow, Radcliffe is rather good throughout all of this, making it rather difficult to just dismiss the movie outright. He's been getting progressively more confident and nuanced in his post-Harry Potter years (if you haven't seen it, check out his dryly funny turn in A Young Doctor's Notebook), and he captures the pain, frustration and guilt-ridden joy his character experiences with considerable skill. He's turning into a pretty compelling screen presence, and despite the film's many problems, the role is a good fit for him. I also liked David Morse (The Green Mile) as Merrin's angry, grieving father, but it's the sort of part Morse can play in his sleep at this point.
Aja is director with a certain amount of raw talent, but he hasn't found the right outlet for it yet (and after a half-dozen features, it's fair to wonder if he ever will). He's a decent visual stylist, favoring vivid colors where other filmmakers might push darkness. He's also a horror filmmaker who seems less interested in scaring people than in shocking them, which might be an asset if his sense of humor wasn't so childish. I'd be curious to see what he could do with a movie like Tremors or The Evil Dead. However, the basic premise of Horns has too much meat on its bones to be treated the way Aja treats it. Had the story been told by someone willing to allow its characters to act like real people, we might have had a smart, sinister gem.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Year: 2014