Alexandre Aja is a director who is never likely to live up to his promise. I'm not a fan of his signature film, Haute Tension, but I could see the talent involved with its making. Before it immolates itself with an unearned twist ending, it's a razor sharp horror movie, one that knows the value of suspense while keeping an instinct for the jugular. Nothing he's made since then has been as assured, though I do have a soft spot for the cheap pulp thrills of his remake of Piranha. I don't know why I expected more from his latest film, Horns (2013), but I did. It has a good cast and a droll source novel. In principle, the elements are all there. Somehow, Aja fumbles it all.
Horns follows the troubles of one Ignatius Perrish, "Ig" to his friends, who wakes up one morning to find that he's growing a pair of horns. Devil horns, as it so happens. Worse, the people around him are suddenly compelled to confess to him their darkest compulsions, including the woman with whom Ig has been sleeping. Ig can influence them to act or not act on them. Ig is thought by everyone he knows to be guilty of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Merrin, though he escaped trial on a technicality. The horns let Ig know what people really feel, even his parents who outwardly support Ig, but inwardly wish he would just go away somehow. That Ig is innocent never enters the minds of anyone he knows, save for his brother and his best friend. The horns are useful to Ig because they provide him with a tool with which to find the actual killer...
The only sequence in Horns that matches the dry comedy one finds in Joe Hill's novel finds Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) seeking medical help for the horns. He's terrified that they might be cancerous or something equally toxic, so he looks to have them surgically removed. As he waits in the reception area, a woman with a shrieking daughter spills her disappointment at him, while the duty nurse tells Ig that she wishes someone would take the child in hand. It's a compelling fantasy, to which the irritation everyone often feels with unattended children can relate. The doctor himself wants to dope himself up before treating Ig and fantasizes about fucking his comely nurse. When Ig wakes up from the anesthesia having NOT been operated upon, he finds the doctor and the nurse enthusiastically copulating next to the operating chair. This part of the film gets it. This is essentially a comedy of manners, one in which the governing restraint of civilization is removed to let people follow their basest urges. This is something of which the rest of the film is unaware. The rest is all so serious about pursuing the murder investigation plot that it doesn't realize that that plot is a Maguffin. It doesn't matter. It's only a framework on which to hang scenes like the doctor and nurse going at it.
Worse, the plot itself is utterly banal and the filmmaking reeks of "filmed in Vancouver because it's cheap." This is another in a long line of films in which the manpain that motivates the plot comes from a fridged girlfriend. It's a revenge film, sure, but it's also a film in which the motivations trickle down from a sense of entitled patriarchy. One never gets the feeling that Ig and Merrin had an equal relationship, only that Ig seems awfully possessive of her. The sexual nature of the crime insures this. That the villain of the piece--assuming that Ig himself is not the villain, in spite of the horns and pitchfork--is a rival for Merrin's affection makes her into a chip in a game between men. It's not endearing and you've seen a thousand other films like it. Even allowing for this, the story structure of the film seems scatter-shot and truncated at the same time. This is a film built around flashbacks, which interrupts the flow of events such that it never builds a head of steam. Worse, it never lets scenes develop farther than establishing plot points, while rushing from scene to scene pellmell without letting them breathe, or, worse, without pausing to explain certain things. Horns mistakes plot for story. This is a big mistake, given the thinness of its plot.
Daniel Radcliffe has turned into a fine actor as an adult. His performance here is good, American accent and all, even while the film does him no favors. Radcliffe channels demonic charm well and he might play an effective villain in some future film.The supporting cast--including Max Minghella, Juno Temple, David Morse, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, and Heather Graham--fares less well. Graham, in particular, features in scenes that would be ripe for comedy, only to become a throwaway character. Her fame-hungry lying witness wants a funnier bunch of scenes. In the book, she gets them. But Aja doesn't allow any comedy to develop here. His conception of the film is as Very Serious Business.
Aja prefers a horror film, it seems, but for a filmmaker who cut his teeth on particularly brutal horror films, he seems to have lost his instinct for the jugular here. Although it's rated "R" for language and sex, it's curiously chaste when it comes to violence. Oh, the violence is there, but it plays like an unpleasant but necessary task more than it does as set pieces designed to disturb. It also fumbles the monster at the end. In an era in which special effects can cover a lot of sins, Horns comes up small on this front. Design is everything in contemporary effects and this film has poor design.
Ultimately, this is a film that miscalculates when choosing its tone. It's naturally a comedy that resolutely refuses to become a comedy. The disconnect results in a film that's as frustrating as it is disappointing.
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