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By Devon Shuman, For The Miami Student

Nowadays, it seems that cheap horror movies are a dime a dozen. Every time you turn around, Hollywood is releasing another “Paranormal Activity,” yet another film filled with ghosts and demons and supposedly “based on a true story”. Whether being titled “The Conjuring or Sinister or Insidious,” all of these horrifying flicks are one and the same: they lack strong storylines and character development and instead, derive their terror from large CGI budgets and clever use of visual and sound effects designed to startle you out of your seat.

If this is what you are looking for, do not waste your time with “Horns,” the latest from director Alexandre Aja (“The Hills Have Eyes,” “Mirrors”).

Though touted as a horror movie and set for a theatrical release on Halloween, “Horns” is not your run-of-the-mill scary movie and is, in fact, not really a horror movie at all. Hiding behind its facade of hellish overtones, creepy setting and music is a love story, and a beautiful, heart-wrenching one at that.

Based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Joe Hill (son of horror master, Stephen King), “Horns” follows the story of Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a man in a small New Hampshire town who finds himself in the spotlight after being blamed for the rape and murder of Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), his longtime girlfriend and the love of his life.

Shunned by his town and brutally scrutinized by reporters, Ig turns to the bottle and after one night of particularly heavy drinking, wakes up to find that he has sprouted two devil horns. As he goes about his day, he begins to realize that the horns have certain powers. Everyone he talks to suddenly reveals to him their darkest, most animalistic urges and if he wants, Ig can make them give in to these impulses. With his newfound abilities, Ig sets out to clear his name and find Merrin’s true killer.

As a storyteller, Hill is a master at balancing fear with emotion, a trait that was most certainly passed down from his father. In the same way that King paralleled the horrors of prison with Andy and Red’s friendship in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Hill balances Ig’s terrifying situation with the story of his and Merrin’s beautiful, yet doomed, relationship.

Using the same non-linear storyline as Hill, coupled with clever use of musical score and cinematography which the written word cannot provide, Aja captures this balance perfectly. In one scene we have a nostalgic flashback to a scantily clad Merrin dancing seductively against a sunlit backdrop to the tune of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” while in the next we see Ig in horns and a hoodie, driving alone on a rainy day.

In this sense, Aja’s adaptation of the novel is spot-on, and in fact, he comes close to nailing it overall. In addition to capturing the dark and beautiful tone of the book, and imitating Hill’s Tarantino-esque, non-linear storytelling technique, Aja finds the same balance of devilish humor and pathos evident
in the novel.

Due to his unique powers, Ig begins to have interesting interactions with his peers. Some add comic relief to the story, such as when he convinces two reporters to beat each other up in order to win an interview with him. Others, however, tug at our heartstrings such as when his mother reveals that she hates being around him.

Helping Aja strike this balance is Radcliffe himself who shows a true actor’s range in his ability to make us both laugh and cry. Putting on a surprisingly believable American accent and truly becoming the defeated, yet defiant character of Ig Perrish, Radcliffe achieves his stated goal of proving he is more than just Harry Potter (although this doesn’t mean that you still won’t lose a little bit of your childhood when you hear your favorite boy wizard drop the F-bomb). Alongside him is a flurry of other great acting performances, from David Morse’s emotional depiction of Merrin’s lonely and depressed father to Heather Graham’s portrayal of the giddy waitress who wants a slice of the limelight.

Despite the attention to detail and wonderful acting, where Aja’s adaptation ultimately fails is in its inability to capture the in-depth themes and psychology behind the book. Where the novel explores the ideas of sin, suffering and heaven vs. hell, the movie chooses to stay at the surface and focus solely on Ig’s search for Merrin’s killer.

One cause of this is the poor performance by Max Minghella as Ig’s best friend and lawyer, Lee Tourneau. While in the book Tourneau is a rich and complex character, Minghella fails to show more range as an actor than Wilson in “Castaway.”

To his credit, however, he had very little material to work with. Time that was spent on overly indulgent special effects, such as a full frontal shotgun head shot or an excessively trippy drug overdose, should have been devoted to fully developing Minghella’s character’s backstory and motivations. If Aja had succeeded here, he would have come close to a perfect adaptation.

Ignoring the novel for a moment, however, what we are left with is a great stand-alone film, a refreshing break from the current onslaught of cheap, shallow horror flicks. “Horns” explores the themes of love, friendship and truth, and forces us to confront who we are and what we believe in.

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