120 min., 2014
Written by Keith Bunin (based on the novel by Joe Hill)
Directed by Alexandre Aja
My rating: ★★★
“Are you horny?”
* * *
Ig Parrish (and what a lovely name for this particular character) is accused of raping and murdering (and not necessarily in that order) his longtime girlfriend, Merrin Williams, after the two suffered a very public, angry breakup. It doesn’t help that Ig got shitfaced drunk afterward and doesn’t remember anything after that. It doesn’t help that his hungover words the next day are interpreted as a confession. And it sure doesn’t help that a witness claims that he threatened to kill Merrin before dragging her into his car and driving off with her into a rainy night.
Everyone in town thinks Ig did it, even his parents. Even his friends. Even Ig isn’t entirely sure that he didn’t. Only his childhood friend (and lawyer) Lee Torneau believes him and does his absolute best to defend him in court.
And then, after a night of drinking and having sex with another childhood friend, Glenna Shepherd, Ig wakes up and discovers that he’s growing horns from his head. Devilish horns. Everyone can see them, and no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that. More to the point, everyone feels the urge to confess terrible things to him. They ask him for permission to do other terrible things. And they will do anything he tells them to do.
At first, Ig amuses himself with this. Then he scares himself. And finally, he realizes that he can use these abilities, including the ability to control snakes, to find out the truth behind the mystery of who killed Merrin.
In a wasteland of haunted house movies and silly internet gaspers, this is a breath of fresh air for the horror genre. Granted, it’s not as good as the Joe Hill novel it’s based on, but it’s wonderful to get away from the jump scares and the exorcisms and Ouija boards and such and get into a story with meat, interesting characters and psychological analysis. With maybe sorta’ some kind of social observations.
This is a story of young love. Of betrayal. Of the horrible impulses everyone has, and how good people emerge when they ignore those impulses, while we define bad people by their habit of reveling in them.
This is the most fascinating part of the film. These impulses run the gamut. We have the weak and innocuous thoughts, like when Glenna expresses her desire to eat six more doughnuts. Ig gives her permission, and she stuffs her mouth. Then there are the fucked up impulses, like the angry little girl who tells Ig that she wants to burn her mommy to death in her bed. Or the doctor who wants to fuck his daughter’s underage friend so badly. Lastly, we have the heartbreaking impulses, like when Ig’s mother tells him that she doesn’t want him to be her son anymore.
All of this culminates in the moment when the media corners Ig outside of a bar, demanding a statement from him. He tells them to beat the shit out of each other, and whoever wins will get the exclusive. This starts a stunning brawl between the reporters, which says a lot about the media and the frenzy they launch into frequently, willing to do anything to get a story, even if it means making a story happen. (This plays out wonderfully to the music of “Personal Jesus.”)
Director Alexandre Aja is really good with marrying images with sound. As Ig emerges from the bar, which is now in flames, smoke comes pouring out with him, and the music, which stopped long enough for him to go in and talk to the patrons, resumes. Perfect.
Aja plays with the concept of horns, too. He doesn’t just refer to the horns on Ig’s head, but also the horns his brother plays. And one of the first scenes of the movie features Merrin asking Ig, “Are you horny?” Aja plays the devilish imagery to the hilt by giving Ig a pitchfork as a weapon, not to mention how he starts walking around with snakes curled around him.
And then there’s the hangover twirl. After Merrin asks about Ig being horny, they start making out on the forest floor, and the camera does a dizzying twirl before sinking into the ground. On the other side, we find Ig, passed out drunk, just as he wakes up. It’s even more dizzying when he stands and starts stumbling around. It makes the audience feel like they’re hungover with him.
Best of all, Aja captures the feeling of young love very well, in particular when it comes to the treehouse, and the vibrant life around it. Diaphanous clothing. Dancing without a care in the world. In fact, he remembers what it was like to be a kid. Everyone romanticizes youth until it’s a caricature of what it was really like. Not so, here. Here kids do stupid shit all the time, like blowing things up with cherry bombs. In one moment, they’re shoving one in a frozen turkey, and they’re joking about forcing its legs open in a sexual way. They ruthlessly make fun of each other, especially if they find a weakness to exploit. They call each other “faggot.” All the unpleasant things about being a kid that you don’t really want to remember.
And then, of course, there’s the stupid DANGEROUS shit they do, like Eric’s dare to Ig about riding down a log rail in a cart without clothes on. And, of course, the weaselly way Eric tries to get out of paying up, by saying Ig rode down in his underwear, so it didn’t count.
It helps that Aja’s vision of Hill’s book is populated with great actors. Daniel Radcliffe (Ig), who could very well have lived off his Harry Potter fame for the rest of his life, is becoming a better actor with every new project. He takes a lot of risks with this movie, and they pay off. Ig’s pretty despicable in some scenes, and it takes a lot of balls to depict these moments. Juno Temple (Merrin) matches with him perfectly, especially in the diner scene, which really deserves a second viewing after you’ve seen the ending. Temple’s powerful performance can’t really be appreciated until you know why she acted the way she did in this scene.
Kelli Garner is sad and desperate and vulnerable as Glenna. Joe Anderson does an excellent job as Ig’s musician brother. Jay Brazeau is wonderful as the priest who gleefully suggests that Ig should just hang himself instead of being a constant reminder of the evil deeds everyone thinks he did. And then there’s Heather Graham as the most vapid, hateable waitress in the history of cinema.
There is a lot to recommend this movie, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t flaws. There are a few big ones, and the most glaring is that half of the story happens in the past and is revealed through flashbacks. A story should constantly move forward (unless the story is LOST, which is an exception to this rule), and to have to keep going back to find the missing pieces? That takes a viewer out of the story. Still, it’s hard to know how to fix that in this instance. Telling the story linearly doesn’t make much sense, either.
Another problem is the unnecessary narration. Ig is supposed to be telling us this story, but his narration does not add to the movie at all. In fact, it’s useless. The story would not suffer in the slightest if his voice over were to be removed from the film.
The last problem is Ig’s revenge. Late in the movie, just before he finds out who really killed Merrin, he goes on a childish rampage of EC-ish proportions, trying to visit punishments that match their crimes. To make things worse, he explains himself as if he were the Crypt-Keeper, or something. He all but laughs like a maniac.
There is one teensy-tiny thing more. It’s not a problem, necessarily, but a matter of preference. The ending of the book makes a lot more sense. For the ending of the movie, it’s like Aja remembered he was making a horror flick, and he wanted to do something more monstrous to impress the audience. As with 98% of all adaptations, the source material is better.
But the movie is still pretty fucking awesome. It slays most of its cinematic competition just by being different. By offering something more than the typical bullshit. If you’re tired of last exorcisms and activity of the paranormal persuasion, HORNS is just what the doctor ordered.Have You Read...?