In a time when cinema has become almost exclusively a cynical and pat medium, in which marketability foregoes the quality of the product being sold, originality has become a mythic, widely discarded possibility. The concept that every story has already been told fuels a culture of laziness by coughing up films that feel like they’re made by people who are hardly trying to do little more than keep their jobs, or worse, shill for awards. The measure of a film’s success is limited to its box-office take, or how often it’s mentioned in the same sentence as the words “Oscar buzz.” Though its name won’t be uttered within rock-throwing distance of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood come February, and likely won’t crack the top ten opening weekend, the success of Horns is immeasurable.
Inkily comic, sweepingly romantic and soul-stirringly tragic, Horns is one of the best and most exhilaratingly unclassifiable films of the year. It’s a fable directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D, Haute Tension), based on a popular novel by Joe Hill about Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a man unaccused of but largely blamed for the mysterious murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), and whose response to the rampant accusations that he is the Devil is to subconsciously make them manifest in the form of two sharp, stony horns sprouting painfully from his temples.
The horns cast a spell on those around Ig, as the townsfolk and his family divulge disturbingly intimate desires at the most inappropriate times, then request Ig’s permission to indulge them. Ig is freaked at first, as he finds out he has final say in their untoward doings. Soon, though, he realizes he can use the bizarre occurrence and its power to extract honesty to his advantage, and finally shut the case on his girlfriend’s murder. But not without having a little fun in the process.
Ig, fed up by the nasty, finger-pointing reporters hounding him, tells the bloodthirsty pack that the victor in a fight to the death will win an exclusive interview. He revels in the ensuing brawl, in a scene that better and more succinctly skews media culture than the vacuous whole of Gone Girl, a film that will inevitably be written about much more, despite being far sillier and less empathetic than a film about a guy with horns growing out of his head.
Horns is a treasure trove of surprises. Aja’s fans, who has proven again and again he can orchestrate a memorable head ‘splosion, will be sideswiped by the film’s emotional core. He and screenwriter Keith Bunin dutifully lend heft to the tragedy at its heart, treating death and grief with responsibility and textured pathos, which is exquisitely and blisteringly embodied by the great and criminally unsung David Morse as Merrin’s father.
Daniel Radcliffe’s boat of fans will likewise be rocked by his volcanic evolution to chameleon-like leading man. His performance is physical, fun, and scarred. If Horns ever puts too much of a strain on believability, it’s dismissible instantly by Radcliffe’s consistent and purely human reaction to the raging nightmare surrounding him. Any remaining trace of The Boy Who Lived is incinerated for good by the end of the first reel.
There are even scenes of adolescent camaraderie that parallel Stand By Me and its ilk, similar to what J.J. Abrams slung together with his young cast in Super 8. Horns may take many diversions, but they never feel like they’re spliced in from another movie. Everything is of a cohesive whole. Horns doesn’t mix genres; it transcends them completely.
Horns is as much a comedy (Heather Graham has a wild cameo as a fame-hungry waitress, and Kelli Garner nearly steals the movie in a very important scene involving donuts) as it is a love story (a scene in which Ig reads a letter from Merrin had this viewer genuinely choked up) that incorporates horror imagery bound to satisfy gorehounds as well as mark the trajectory of its soulful characters. Nothing about Horns is gratuitous, which is something that has probably never been ever said about an Alexandre Aja film.
In a cinematic climate where films are limited by lazy categorization, it’s a gamble when one naturally eschews such labels. The unclassifiability of Horns will inevitably be fobbed off as tonal imbalance, or other somesuch nonsense. But as far as unpredictable, original, rare visual storytelling goes, Horns is a godsend.