Ig Perrish is in for some Kafkaesque body horror, but at least there will be productive side effects. Those horns he finds growing from his temples are like paranormal sodium pentothal when it comes to getting people to reveal their hidden secrets—the darker and more shocking the better. Sadly, he will employ his grim new talent to find the murder of his lifelong girlfriend in Alexandre Aja’s Horns (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Perrish was a pariah in his Twin Peaks-ish Pacific Northwest town, even before the horns. Nearly everyone assumes he murdered Merrin Williams, the love of his life, who had just thrown him over. Unfortunately, he does not have one of those alibi thingamajigs, but there is no direct evidence tying him to the murder. The situation just continues fester until his wakes up with the mother of all scarlet letters sprouting from his head.
Strangely, most people hardly notice the horns and promptly forget them shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, when talking to Perrish in-the-moment, everyone develops a wicked case of TMI, answering his questions with brutally revealing honesty. Weaker characters can also be somewhat susceptible to suggestion. Only a handful of people appear immune to Perrish’s power, including Merrin Williams’ utterly bereft father and their mutual childhood friend, Lee Tourneau, who now represents Perrish as the local public defender.
Based on a novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), Horns is definitely a genre film, featuring plenty of macabre and outlandish scenes. However, it is surprisingly engaging on an emotional level, especially for a horror film, but even by the standards of conventionally square drama. Viewers will really care what happens to Perrish and mourn the pure-hearted romance that was violently cut short.
Given the horns and all, it is not surprising to find so much religious symbolism and subtext, but the film’s deep moral center comes as another pleasant surprise. While Perrish’s uncanny growths erupt after he spurns God (following an encounter with a highly judgmental clergyman) his salvation will come (if indeed it does) through the honest fate of Williams and her father Dale.
That’s all great, but Horns genre mechanics are also quite strong. Perrish’s supernaturally enhanced interrogations are quite cleverly written and often darkly comic. Yet, Aja still takes care of horror movie business, steadily building the sense of foreboding and genuine suspense.
Daniel Radcliffe, who used to make kiddie movies, is terrific as Perrish, convincingly getting at his deep-as-the-marrow pain and angst, rather than hiding behind hipster bravado. David Morse manages to be even rawer, providing the film’s moral touchstone as Dale Williams. Juno Temple is almost too spritely for Merrin Williams, but Max Minghella’s Tourneau has some memorable moments too complicated to explain here.