Of all the recent films featuring protagonists with horns — “Maleficent” and “Hellboy” are two that come to mind —the ambitious new mishmash starring Daniel Radcliffe is the least likely to result in any popular Halloween costumes.
In “Horns,” Radcliffe sprouts pointy parts that are about as terrifying as ornamental gourds. Despite the ham-handed symbolism, he looks less like Lucifer than like the faun Mr. Tumnus in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Directed by splat-pack director Alexandre Aja (“Piranha 3D”) with uncharacteristic but still gruesome restraint, adapted from what seems a very busy novel by Joe Hill, “Horns” resembles an awkward collaboration between Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen King, and Rob Zombie. Tone and coherence are not strong points. But helped by the oneiric cinematography of Frederick Elmes (“Synecdoche, New York”), it features the occasional dazzling visual. In the opening sequence, the camera hovers over lovebirds Ig (Radcliffe) and Merrin (Juno Temple) in an Edenic forest and descends into another, inverted world in which Ig lies passed out on the floor of a filthy apartment.
Much has happened between the shots. Merrin has been discovered raped and murdered and Ig is chief suspect. Though not yet accused, he’s pursued by the media and a witch-hunting mob of neighbors who declare him to be the devil. Fed up with the harassment, bereaving his loss, frustrated with the progress made by his lawyer — his best friend Lee (Max Minghella) — to clear him, Ig gets literally pissed. Drunk, he urinates on Merrin’s makeshift memorial shrine and spends the night with a needy girl who has a crush on him.
Apparently, such sordid behavior is the occult formula for growing a pair of horns that bestow enough weird powers to spawn a half-dozen Marvel superheroes. Even as little nubbins, the horns compel people to reveal their darkest secrets — and act on them. As one woman reveals her self-loathing and compulsion to eat ice cream, and two cops act out their latent gayness, the horns seem also to reveal the filmmakers’ own misogyny and homophobia.
Up to a point, “Horns” maintains a balance of black humor and genuine angst. But as flashbacks keep returning to a “Stand By Me”-like adolescent backstory, and the macabre comedy curdles into mawkishness, and the intriguing central conceit gets more complicated and kooky (do we really need snakes, too?), “Horns” shifts from nifty Gothic thriller to obvious but meaningless allegory.
Watch the trailer:
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.