It’s rare, but some humans do grow horns. They’re called cutaneous horns, are made of the same stuff fingernails are composed of, and are usually harmless. The sufferers of this malady have enjoyed two heroes at the movies this year: Maleficent, of course, and now Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the tormented protagonist of Horns. Ignatius, or Ig for short, faces a dilemma similar to that which befell Ben Affleck in Gone Girl: Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), was raped and murdered, and everyone thinks Ig did it. As if to solidify everyone’s suspicion, Ig wakes up one hungover morning with the beginnings of horns on his forehead. These horns make people want to burden Ig with confessions of their darkest desires. If this might work to make Merrin’s real killer spill the beans, so much the better.
In his continuing successful effort to break away from a childhood spent as Harry Potter, Radcliffe swears and drinks and smokes and fornicates; Ig is not most people’s idea of a spotless hero even without the horns. Radcliffe brings out a harrowed decency in Ig, though, such that we don’t question his innocence even if we haven’t read the source material — Joe Hill’s 2010 novel, of which the movie is a considerably streamlined (but author-approved) variant. The evil here has its roots in adolescent triumphs and traumas, an area familiar to Hill’s father, one Stephen King.
Because of this story’s very human foundation for supernatural chills, it may be the best work of the French director Alexandre Aja, who previously has amused himself in the grindhouse section of the video store (he made Haute Tension, remade The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, and produced the Maniac remake). Aja’s work has been impressively bloody, but the blood was cold, hip, self-aware, concerned primarily with technical efficiency. Horns draws out a heretofore unseen compassion in Aja, who dials the grue way down and focuses on the terrific cast he’s hired. For instance, James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan turn up as Ig’s outwardly supportive but secretly doubting parents, and David Morse stops by for another of his affecting portraits of stoic anguish as Merrin’s grieving father, who thinks Ig killed her.
Ig isn’t so sure himself, at times, that he didn’t do it. In a world where a man can sprout horns and make others tell him their least lovely stories, who’s to say Ig didn’t kill Merrin — after all, the last he saw of her was when he was about to propose to her and she coolly broke up with him — and compel himself to forget it? Or what if he’s in Hell already? Well, he more or less is there mentally, anyway. Ultimately, Horns works out not as a grindingly literal demon show but as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt. If David Cronenberg’s The Brood was, as Cronenberg said, his bent version of Kramer Vs. Kramer, then Horns may be Joe Hill’s warped take on Moonlight Mile, that undeservedly forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle in which he deals with his girlfriend’s death. Straight-up horror can deal with mundane human dramas more cleanly and sharply than even pulp like Gone Girl can. This month is the best time of year to reiterate that.