Monday, November 17, 2014
Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2014)
Alexandre Aja’s careers has had its ups and downs. He burst onto the scene with “High Tension,” one of the films that helped defined the new wave of French horror in the two-thousands and won over horror fans from all around the world. After coming to America, he became known as a remake specialist, directing three horror remakes in a row. Though only one of those was a dud, Aja perhaps bristled against that reputation. He turned down remakes of “Pet Sematary” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night” before trying to kick-start an as-yet unrealized live-action version of “Cobra the Space-Pirate.” After three years, the director finally returned with “Horns,” the first film based on a novel by Joe Hill. Despite being from a book by the son of Stephen King, “Horns” is something of a departure for Aja. It’s more dark fantasy then pure horror. It also stars a major actor, Daniel Radcliffe, someone else looking to break pop culture preconceptions.
Ig Perrish, a DJ and local celebrity of minor renown in his small town of Gideon, is going through a personal hell. His angelic girlfriend, beloved by everyone around him, has been murdered and Ig is widely assumed of being the killer. He isn’t. The grief of loosing his beloved is hard enough. The constant badgering and suspicion is driving him crazy. After a particularly rough night, Ig awakens with a pair of satyr-like horns growing from his forehead. When staring directly at the horns, people confess their deepest secrets to Ig or act on their darkest desires before forgetting the events all together. Though he’s disturbed by this development at first, Ig quickly begins to use his newfound abilities to uncover his girlfriend’s true killer. As he searches for the devil in others, his own devilish nature grows.
After being Harry Potter for the first decade of his career, Daniel Radcliffe probably could have retired from acting altogether or pursued easy roles in similar big budget summer flicks. Instead, Radcliffe has used his star power to get dark, off-beat projects made. After an infamous stage revival of “Equus,” “The Woman in Black,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” (but before a new version of “Frankenstein” where he’ll play Igor) ”Horns” fits right in with Radcliffe’s new career direction. Radcliffe’s performance winds up being one of the most solid elements of the sometimes-rickety film. Performing with a convincing American accent, Radcliffe wrings every ounce of emotion he can out of the occasionally stiff dialogue. There’s a raw, honest quality to his work here. A few times, he delivers his lines, on the verge of tears, earning the audience’s investment. Radcliffe’s soul-barring performance is the best thing about the film and, just when it threatens to fall apart, he holds it together.
In time, the film has to address the girlfriend’s death and the identity of her killer. In its middle chapter, “Horns” becomes an atypical murder mystery. Ig uses his abilities to gather clues. He discovers that a waitress lied about his behavior on the night of the murder. He learns that his drug addict brother was the last person to see Merrin alive. Knowing these things, Ig decides to use his new abilities to punish those that have wronged him. When Ig gives into his devilish urges the movie, none too subtly, has him picking up a pitchfork and giving him a sway over snakes. During these trashier moments, “Horns” begins to feel more like the horror movies Alexandre Aja has made in the past. It’s less interesting then the dark comedy but isn’t without its positive attributes. The waitress being bitten by a horde of snakes in her car is certainly a memorable moment. You could see the roots of a solid revenge thriller in “Horns” if it had committed to one tone.
The script takes a number of liberties with Joe Hill’s novel, most of them for the best. However, like the book, the movie makes extensive use of flashbacks. The first extended flashback goes back to Ig’s childhood, exploring when he first met Merrin, the love of his life, and a few other friends for life. This first sequence works fairly well. The cast of kids are talented and all resemble their adult counterparts. The way Merrin and Ig meet, involving a cross necklace and Morse code in church, is cute without being too gimmicky. An anecdote involving a cheery bomb pays off fairly way. The centerpiece of this sequence has Ig, in his underwear, riding a shopping cart off a ramp, into the logging lake, and nearly dying.
For its flaws, “Horns” functions fairly well as both a dark comedy and a demonic-tinged thriller… Up until the last half-hour. Ig discovers who kills his girlfriend and confronts her, the story coming to a logical ending point. Instead of finishing up there, the movie continues for another thirty minutes. The murderer stops acting like a reasonable human being and begins acting like a psychotic, cartoon supervillain. Ig puts on Merrin’s cross necklace, his wounds healing instantly, another example of the film’s heavy-handed symbolism. It gets worst. Hero and villains meet again. All the good will “Horns” builds up so far is squandered at this point. Ig trades in his devil horns for angel wings that then burst into flames, causing him to transform into a full blown demon. The effects are heavy-handed. The story concluding with a big fight scene is disappointing. The resolution is hopelessly cheesy too, even throwing in the “horny” pun the movie was probably resisting the entire time. If you cut “Horns” off at the 90 minute mark, you’d be left with a more satisfying film.
In addition to Radcliffe’s strong central performance, “Horns” features a cast full of great character actors. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, who hasn’t had a role this good since “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” both have plum roles as Ig’s parents. Each one gets a solid monologue to themselves. Joe Anderson and Kelli Garner both play desperate characters and their desperate qualities are increased by Ig’s powers. Juno Temple only has to be angelic and flawless as Merrin and, luckily, Temple is more then capable of that. David Morse is another juicy supporting player as her angry, grieving father. My favorite performance in the film belongs to Heather Graham. As a frequently underutilized and unappreciated actress, Graham is given an oppretunity to dig into some prime dialogue here. As the lying, sleazy waitress, she indulges in some nasty, over-the-top behavior. It’s the most alive I’ve seen Graham in years. It’s unlikely to lead to better parts but I am glad to see her reinventing herself as a character actress in tighter parts.
The crappy last act and simplistic characters decisions are symptoms of “Horns’” biggest problem. The whole film is hassled by an overly didactic tone. This is evident from the beginning, literally. As soon as the film begins, we are greeted with an unnecessary voiceover that lazily explains the themes of the story. Joe Hill’s dialogue works fine on the page but, coming out of actors’ mouth, often come off as overdone and too literal. The musical choices are often a little too-on-the-nose as well. Did “Personal Jesus” have to start up right as Ig manipulate a group of people into a fist fight? “Horns,” as a movie, probably needed a smoother screenplay and more naturalistic dialogue.
“Horns” is uneven but does contain plenty of things I like, Radcliffe’s performance and a intriguing and funny first half chief among them. It’s an interesting step forward for Aja, showing his interest evolving in different direction. His next film, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” is outside the horror genre too and sounds similarly themed to this one. Hopefully that film avoids the narrative bumps and choppy writing of this one. “Horns” comes very close to being satisfying but just misses the mark. [Grade: B-]