Alexandre Aja is an exhausting filmmaker. The director, whose ultraviolent, viscerally gory High Tension stands as one of the most notorious films in the infamous New French Extremity canon, has a maximalist style, a sort of throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach that yields twice as many miscues for every moment of batshit brilliance. Chaotic as they are, his films, particularly his American exploitation riffs (The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D), take a serious, if perfunctory, approach to matters of myth and iconography in genre cinema. His latest effort, the supernatural black comedy Horns, applies this approach to no less weighty a topic than Western religion — but despite the more serious subject, the results are characteristically outrageous.
Initially, the film seems like something of a departure for Aja, a contemplative comic fantasy devoid of camp free-for-all (as in Piranha 3D) and brutal verisimilitude (as in High Tension). But as the film careens between various moods and subplots, it’s clear the director has retained his impulsive tendencies, even if he’s slightly muted them this time around. Rather than representing an advancement or refinement in style, Horns displays a broadening of Aja’s genre acuity, which is admittedly impressive if ultimately frivolous in this case. Luckily, he’s outfitted Horns with enough surrounding talent to at least keep things watchable in the moment.
In what feels like a highly calculated effort to further distance himself from his career-making role as the boy wizard Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe stars as the brooding Ig, the prime suspect in the murder of his coquettish girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). Everyone in his small Pacific Northwest town has turned against him, labeling him a killer and villain despite the case remaining open. The only person still in his corner is his childhood friend (Max Minghella) — who, conveniently enough, is the only person who can see the pair of devilish horns that have mysteriously sprouted from Ig’s head. Suddenly, everyone Ig encounters feels compelled to spill their deepest, darkest secrets to him before committing a sin — one of the sexy ones, usually — in front of him. As he gradually uncovers the real killer’s identity, his Satanic appearance grows increasingly elaborate.
At least Radcliffe brings tremendous spirit to the film.
One quick scan of the premise is enough to grasp the disparate genre elements — neo-noir, murder mystery, occult horror, fantasy romance, relationship drama — on display, but there is something remarkable in watching the director brandish each one with aplomb. It helps that all of Aja’s flourishes — from his wild visual style, complete with asymmetrical compositions and curiously exaggerated color palette, to his morbid sense of humor — wholly serve the story. The inexplicable fantasy scenarios — the titular headwear, the nightmarish “confessional” scenes — that seep into this otherwise ordinary universe suggest philosophical musings and spiritual themes, and Aja uses Christian sensationalism for both humor and pathos. Alas, for all the scintillating surface activity, deeper avenues are left unexplored: Considering how faith, spiritualism and supernaturalism operate in genre films as disparate as A Page of Madness and Don’t Look Now, it’s disappointing that Horns doesn’t have anything more insightful to add about Western religion and its intrinsic role in horror-movie style. Therein lies the difference between Aja and someone like Edgar Wright: Though both directors are genre aficionados, only Wright understands the way generic iconography and methodology are embedded in the collective unconscious. Aja, by contrast, only sees such archetypes as grist for jolts.
At least Radcliffe brings tremendous spirit to the film, happily following the director down his rabbit hole and showcasing a capricious sensibility that occasionally surfaced in last year’s Kill Your Darlings. It’s a frantic yet remarkably nuanced performance that belongs in a better movie. By the time the story reaches an abrupt climax, the film has devolved into numbing repetition, showing us the same basic transgressions that occur under the horns’ spell without really advancing the plot. But there are laughs aplenty, and Aja orchestrates some genuinely creepy scenes that don’t rely solely on violence for effect, particularly Ig’s first encounter with his unsightly head accessories. (That said, the film is still plenty bloody, lest old-school Aja fans start to worry.) Plus there’s the promise that Radcliffe’s best performances are still ahead of him, a comforting notion that promises one less child star swallowed by the Hollywood machine.