Something wicked this way comes as Harry Potter heartthrob Daniel Radcliffe becomes a horny little devil in Alexandre Aja’s quirky supernatural thriller.
Lord Voldemort would be proud of his transformation into a vengeful, flame-spewing demon, whose presence compels the damned to succumb to their most primal impulses.
Lusty work colleagues throw off the shackles of politeness and engage in frenetic sex; an exhausted mother fantasizes about inflicting physical violence on a screaming child; a recovering drug addict hungrily snorts an entire stash of narcotics – destined for the oblivion of an overdose.
Aja, director of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D, remains rooted in the horror genre with Horns, but there’s more soul-searching than gratuitous gore in this serpentine whodunit about a young man suspected of murdering his girlfriend in a jealous rage.
Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) only has eyes for neighbour Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). Their romance blossoms in childhood when they play together as part of a gang with Ig’s older brother Terry (Joe Anderson) and good friend Lee (Max Minghella).
On the day that Ig is poised to go down on bended knee, Merrin orchestrates a very public break-up in a diner. The following morning, police discover Merrin’s lifeless body below her favourite treehouse in the forest and a drunken and dishevelled Ig in his car with no memory of the night before.
A voracious media scrum descends and Merrin’s father Dale (David Morse) makes clear that he believes Ig is the killer.
“As long as he is free, there is no way her soul can be laid to rest,” rages the father.
After a night of excessive booze – a pitiful attempt to salve his grief – Ig regains consciousness with a raging hangover and discovers that he has a pair of horns growing out of his head. The devilish outcrops compel locals to confess their sins and Ig realises he can exploit his new-found powers of persuasion to uncover the circumstances of Merrin’s death and unmask a murderer.
Horns is blessed with one of Radcliffe’s best screen performances. Sporting an impeccable American accent, he teases out his character’s maelstrom of emotions, laced with mordant wit like when Ig survives a vicious beating and quips: “One thing I’ll say in my favour, I’m hard to kill!”
Anderson and Minghella offer strong performances, while Temple casts a dreamy glow as the flame-haired free spirit, who drives men to madness. Black humour walks hand in hand with brutality as Ig’s haphazard investigation twists and turns.
The blood-spattered and bone-crunching denouement can’t resist a flourish of digital effects to unleash hell, literally, on earth. But for the most part, director Aja shows admirable restraint, revelling in the depravity and dark desires of a close-knit community, which assumes people are guilty until proven innocent.