In Horns, Ig Perrish grows a pair of horns, and gains a superpower that's also a terrible curse. In Joe Hill's novel, this turns into an exploration of the darkness in human nature, including misogyny and jealousy. But the new movie version, while fun, never brings enough depth to support its misanthropic premise.
Some minor-ish spoilers ahead...
The bottom line is, Horns fails to do justice to its book source material, in a few crucial areas. Director Alexandre Aja and writer Keith Bunin have made some key changes, which have the effect of dumbing down the narrative and making it more plot-oriented — and more of a whodunnit. They've also added a really spoon-feeding voiceover from Ig Perrish, which all too often states the obvious in a really portentous way. (When Ig first grows his horns, the voiceover intones, "Everybody thought I was a devil — and now I looked the part." Way to explain, movie.)
Basically, Horns the movie is a fun "B" movie. It's got some fun set pieces, and some cool moments, and some parts that drag horrendously. It's pretty much your standard-issue horror-comedy, with some fun gross-out scenes and some mildly subversive humor mixed in with "dark" moments of nastiness.
In Horns, Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) has been falsely accused of killing his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). And then one day, he wakes up and he has horns growing out of his forehead. Anybody who looks at Ig's horns reveals his or her most horrible, self-destructive desires, which he can encourage them to carry out. And when Ig touches people, he can see their worst sins. Oh, and snakes gather around him. Ig sets about using his terrible new power to prove his innocence and find out who really killed Merrin. Meanwhile, flashbacks show us how Ig and Merrin met, fell in love, and fell apart before her death.
Just like the book, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of having people, including authority figures and soccer moms, blurt out their most terrible secrets and urges, early on. But where the book keeps digging into the theological and psychological ramifications of all of these ugly revelations, the movie is mostly content to dwell on the ugly surface.
And that's a problem, because without the added weight to hold it down, Horns' wish-fulfillment element starts to feel a bit ugly at times. Ig Perrish is basically your ultimate alienated protagonist — at the start of the story, everybody thinks he's a murderer/rapist, and then he quickly discovers the true depth of everybody's loathing for him, even as he also learns that he's surrounded by terrible human beings. It's sort of a fantasy of being the ultimate misunderstood loner, while also having the power to expose everyone else's hypocrisy and lay bare their true ugliness. Despite looking like the Devil, Ig gets to sit in judgment on everyone else, all the people who've been judging him all this time.
I guess the movie doesn't sit as well with me as the book, because Ig's superpower feels like only a superpower on film — it's not a way to explore the nature of evil, or the theology of God versus Satan, or any of the other things it is in the book. And this is also where the movie's tonal issues become a problem, because the film can't quite switch from "horror comedy" to "dark psychological exploration" when it needs to. The result feels a bit sadomasochistic at times, without feeling entirely earned.
That said, Horns is a perfectly watchable "B" movie, and is solidly entertaining for most of its two-hour running length. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the movie version of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas, which was similarly lightweight and mostly pretty fun. Horns is best watched as a midnight movie, with your intoxicant of choice, and possibly as part of a marathon. (And luckily, Horns is available on VOD and iTunes in addition to being in theaters, so this is a possibility right now.)
As Ig, Daniel Radcliffe does a pretty good job of channeling rage and misery, but he doesn't quite engage enough sympathy to make you come along for the ride once he starts wearing snakes on his shoulders and scowling at everyone he meets. On the plus side, his American accent is solid enough.
Aja is a stylish director, who has a bit of fun keeping you guessing as to whether something's a flashback or a present-day sequence. He has some of his best ideas with long static shots, in which he can use the edges of the frame to surprise you with something coming in from one side or another. The claustrophobic little New England town, the diner where Ig and Merrin hang out, and the crawly forest where a lot of the action takes place all feel like real, grungy places.
All in all, Horns is a pleasingly fucked-up supernatural murder mystery, in which some (but not all) Hell breaks loose because of one guy's power to lay bare everyone else's worst natures. There are enough sight gags and clever set pieces to keep you watching, and some of the character depth of Hill's novel still comes through (particularly in the flashbacks.) It's not particularly deep, but it's a fun ride.