Horns film review from Toronto International Film Festival

Alexandre Aja’s Joe Hill adaptation Horns makes too little of its mystery at TIFF 2013

Daniel Radcliffe’s recent career has been very impressive: from a youngster famous exclusively for playing one of the most recognised and highest-grossing characters in the movies, to a high-energy actor who inhabits his new roles so well that you can easily watch him without once thinking “It’s Harry Potter!”

The latest evidence was this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which showcased three new Radcliffe movies. In Kill Your Darlings, he plays a young Allen Ginsberg – and plays him well. In The F Word, he’s a med-school dropout smitten by a friend (Zoe Kazan, best known as her own fantasy character, Ruby Sparks). In that film, a definite crowd-pleaser, he’s even better.

Then there’s Horns. This is the latest from French horror movie director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), based on the novel by Joe Hill. Though an established horror talent in his own right, there’s some traction to be gained in comparing him here to his father – the undisputed king of the chiller, Stephen King.

Among other things, King’s work inhabits a secular world in which religion serves little purpose apart from driving people nuts. (See Carrie’s God-fearing mother for an example.) Horns, on the other hand, has a spiritual aspect, in which religious symbols have real power – and can indeed save and protect those who use them.

Radcliffe plays Ig, a small-town American guy who is on the run, falsely (but understandably) blamed for the murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), with who he recently had a heated break-up. To add to his troubles, he has also sprouted a pair of demonic horns.

These horns are unsightly, but they also seem to bring out the worst in everyone he comes near, as they confess their darkest personal secrets to him – usually in a ‘too much information’ way – and often proceed to act upon them. As you would expect, this provides several moments of dark comedy – a clinic receptionist swearing abuse at the more annoying patients, a scrum of reporters beating each other to a pulp in order to get an exclusive interview with Ig – but before long, you find that all the laughs have lulled you into a false sense of security.

Half way through, it takes a decidedly starker turn, as Ig uses his new demonic powers to discover who killed Merrin. Now the movie lives up to its sinister subject matter, as we discover which characters’ dark sides are overshadowed by their morality, and which ones are simply evil. It all leads to a rather heavy-handed climax, complete with slithering CGI snakes in which we are reminded of Aja’s fondness of gory and brutal violence.

This is great if you like that sort of thing, but there’s more enjoyment to be had in the twists (as more than a few characters surprise us with their secrets) and the mystery, which – despite Ig’s ability to magically pull a confession from any guilty person – is more challenging than you might think.

The other mystery – the horns, and the powers that come with them – are something else.

Like the events of classic fantasy-comedies like Big and Groundhog Day, the magic is never explained. But while those movies made some kind of narrative sense (even if they don’t make any logical sense), as the heroes were suited to their experiences, Horns gives its hero a problem that he doesn’t really deserve. As Ig is clearly innocent (and no, that’s not a spoiler, as it is obvious early in the film), why is he turning into the devil? As his powers are very useful in his quest for the truth, they become just a little too convenient.