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Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is the number one suspect for the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). Hungover from a night of hard drinking, Ig awakens one morning to find horns growing from his head and soon realizes their power drives people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and unspeakable impulses – an effective tool in his quest to discover what happened to his girlfriend and exact revenge on her killer. (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

 Horns
Despite a comparatively minuscule budget and delayed release (there was over a year between its Toronto International Film Festival premiere and its theatrical premiere), Alexandre Aja’s Horns was highly anticipated within the horror community. It is the first theatrical adaptation of one of acclaimed author Joe Hill’s (given name Joseph King, son of Stephen King) genre novels, many of which have languished in development hell for years. Having never read any of those books, I was personally more excited for Aja’s return to the director’s chair. Following an ambitious but boring debut ( Furia, 1999), Aja made High Tension (2003), which, in spite of a stupid, nonsensical third-act twist, is one of the essential films of the New French Extreme horror movement. He followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes (2006) – the best horror remake since Chuck Russell’s 1988 version of The Blob. Unfortunately, the success seems to have caught him in a rut of ‘reimagining’ other filmmaker’s movies – one bad ( Mirrors, 2008), one decent ( Piranha 3D, 2010), and one brilliant ( Maniac, 2012, which he produced for director Franck Khalfoun). Horns would be his first non-remake in more than a decade.

The book was adapted by screenwriter Keith Bunin. Minus the experience of reading the original story, I’m left with two possible assumptions – one, it is too complex and tonally delicate to be accurately adapted, or, two, Hill’s book is kind of a mess. I’m going to guess that the truth is somewhere in the middle (and that the story is pretty predictable, no matter what form it is presented in). For his part, Aja makes a handsome movie with a successful fairytale slant that is only sometimes the victim of a limited budget (the climax looks pretty cheap). But, in the process of whittling down the novel to a workable feature length, the rhythm of the storytelling and editing in general become the film’s biggest problems. The story bounces awkwardly between the past and present, creating a patchwork of subplots and sequences that don’t really cut together. Stark tonal shifts are an important part of the story, but Aja and editor Baxter (that’s the only name he’s credited with) make some really obtuse choices in terms of comedic and dramatic timing. Perhaps its just a matter of the director finding his voice with more dramatic and comedic output. Maybe he needs more practice to pull it off. Piranha was definitely a comedy, but it was far from tonally subtle.

 Horns
Horns is largely anchored on Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, which is close to outstanding (especially since the badly-placed narration isn’t his fault). He still hasn’t quite escaped the specter of Harry Potter, but playing particularly dark young adults (with facial hair) like Ig will surely help audiences overlook the connection as he ages. He’s cast not only as the protagonist, but, once the horns grow in, he plays straight-man to basically the entire town and his emotional fluctuations do a lot of heavy lifting for Aja when it comes to dramatic weight. The rest of the cast is pretty good, too, especially Joe Anderson as Ig’s musician brother and Heather Graham as a waitress that makes up stories about the murder for attention – though not everyone is comfortable with the wild mood swings that Ig’s ‘powers’ bring out in the population. Plenty of the actors’ shortcomings can be blamed on the rocky script as well. In an effort to stick to the central love story, the writer, director, and editor have generally neglected the supporting characters, leaving them as weightless ciphers that make only a minimal impact on the drama. David Morse’s appearance as Merrin’s bereaved father, Dale, seems to have been cut especially short.

 Horns

Video


Horns was shot digitally using Arri Alexa cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 HD video. Aja and cinematographer Frederick Elmes soften the overall image and compound the pillowy look with shallow focus during close-ups and anamorphic lens distortion around the edges of wide shots. Though details and patterns are still plenty complex, the white levels are often heavily diffused and the textures (especially stuff like skin and clothing) tend to be smoothed over. This gives the film a consistently ethereal quality that serves the themes and helps cover some of the budgetary constraints. Sharp black edges and well-separated colours keep the softness from overwhelming the image. The strong, eclectic, yet largely natural palette grounds the imagery a bit whenever characters are outdoors. The lush greens, smooth browns, azure skies, and pink flesh tones are flecked by occasionally vivid red and orange set dressing, like Ig’s car. The flashbacks are warmer with a golden tint and more vibrant colour schemes. Naturally, there aren’t any issues with edge enhancement, given the bloomy, soft nature of the photography, but there are some rough and bandy transitions, too, especially during the flashbacks.

 Horns

Audio


Horns is presented with a typical DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The sound design isn’t consistently aggressive, but springs to life throughout the channels whenever something supernatural happens. Ig’s brother’s drug trip overdose floods the stereo and surround channels with surrealistic noise and is probably the highlight – even more than the LFE-throbbing climatic transformation/final battle. The environmental effects are pretty understated, including breeze, rain, vehicles moving through frame, and the chatter of a busy bar. Though subtle, these sounds have plenty of depth and move throughout the speakers without overwhelming the steadily toned dialogue. Robin Coudert’s score alternates between ‘pretty’ symphonic melodies and rougher, electric guitar-driven dirges. The music occasionally takes the position of default ambient sound during quieter moments, but is more often treated as a supporting element. The pop and rock accompaniment is all way too obvious (almost every song used has been used in a better, more famous way in a different movie), but is well-integrated into the mix.

Extras


The only extra is The Making of Horns (18:50, HD), an EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette. It includes some on-set footage and interviews with the cast and crew, but is too generalized and fluffy to be very informative.

 Horns

Overall


Horns isn’t the bad movie I heard it was, but it’s also not very good. The material is compelling, the imagery is attractive, and the central performance is strong, but the story never gels, the editing is awkward, and a number of interesting/amusing subplots are left unexplored. As a fan of director Alexadre Aja, I only hope that this was a learning experience for him. Anchor Bay/The Weinstein Company’s Blu-ray looks very nice (with only minor banding) and sounds pretty good, but has very little in terms of extras.

 Horns
Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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