Horns Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is the number one suspect for the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). Hungover from a night of hard drinking, Ig awakens one morning to find horns growing from his head and soon realizes their power drives people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and unspeakable impulses – an effective tool in his quest to discover what happened to his girlfriend and exact revenge on her killer. (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)
Despite a comparatively minuscule budget and delayed release (there was over a year between its Toronto International Film Festival premiere and its theatrical premiere), Alexandre Aja’s Horns (2015) was highly anticipated within the horror community. It is the first theatrical adaptation of one of acclaimed author Joe Hill’s (given name Joseph King, son of Stephen King) many genre novels to escape development hell. Following an ambitious but boring debut (Furia, 1999), Aja had made High Tension (2003), which, in spite of a stupid, nonsensical third-act twist, is one of the essential films of the New French Extreme horror movement. He followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes (2006), which was arguably the best horror remake since Chuck Russell’s 1988 version of The Blob. Unfortunately, the success seems to have caught him in a rut of ‘reimagining’ other filmmaker’s movies – one mediocre (Mirrors, 2008), one half-decent (Piranha 3D, 2010), and one borderline brilliant (Maniac, 2012, which he produced for director Franck Khalfoun). As his first non-remake in more than a decade, Horns would hopefully break that rut, for better or worse.
The book was adapted by screenwriter Keith Bunin. Minus the experience of reading the original story, I’m left with two possible assumptions – one, it is too complex and tonally delicate to be accurately adapted, or, two, Hill’s book is kind of a mess. I’m going to guess that the truth is somewhere in the middle (and that the basic narrative is pretty predictable, no matter what form it is presented in). For his part, Aja crafts a handsome movie with a charming fairytale slant that is only sometimes the victim of a limited budget (the climax, at the very least, looks pretty cheap). But, in the process of whittling down the novel to a workable, feature-length movie, the rhythm of the storytelling and, really, the editing in general, feels choppy. The story bounces between the past and present without a consistent tempo, creating a patchwork of subplots and sequences that don’t really cut together. Stark tonal shifts are clearly important to the story’s fabric, but Aja and editor Baxter (that’s the only name he’s credited with) make some really obtuse choices in terms of comedic and dramatic timing. Perhaps its just a matter of the director finding his voice with more dramatic and comedic output. Maybe he needs more practice to pull it off. Piranha was definitely a comedy, but it was far from tonally subtle.
Horns’ anchor is Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, which is very close to outstanding (especially considering that the awkward narration isn’t his fault). He still hasn’t quite escaped the specter of Harry Potter, but playing particularly dark young adults (with facial hair) like Ig will surely help audiences overlook the connection as he ages. He’s cast not only as the protagonist, but, once the horns grow in, he plays straight-man to basically the entire town. His broad emotional fluctuation does a lot of heavy lifting for Aja in terms of dramatic weight. The rest of the cast is pretty good, too, especially Joe Anderson as Ig’s musician brother and Heather Graham as a waitress who makes up murder stories for attention – though not everyone is comfortable with the wild mood swings that Ig’s ‘powers’ bring out in the population. It doesn’t help that, in an effort to stick to the central love story, the writer, director, and editor neglect the supporting characters. David Morse’s appearance as Merrin’s bereaved father, Dale, seems to have been cut especially short.
Horns was shot digitally using Arri Alexa cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 HD video. Aja and cinematographer Frederick Elmes soften the overall image and compound the pillowy look with shallow focus during close-ups and anamorphic lens distortion around the edges of wide shots. Though details and patterns are still plenty complex, the white levels are often heavily diffused and the textures (especially stuff like skin and clothing) tend to be smoothed over. This gives the film a consistently ethereal quality that serves the themes and helps cover some of the budgetary constraints. Sharp black edges and well-separated colors keep the softness from overwhelming the image. The strong, eclectic, yet largely natural palette grounds the imagery a bit whenever characters are outdoors. The lush greens, smooth browns, azure skies, and pink flesh tones are flecked by occasionally vivid red and orange set dressing, like Ig’s car. The flashbacks are warmer with a golden tint and more vibrant color schemes. Naturally, there aren’t any issues with edge enhancement, given the bloomy, soft nature of the photography, but there are some rough and bandy transitions, too, especially during the flashbacks.
Horns is presented with a typical DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The sound design isn’t consistently aggressive, but springs to life throughout the channels whenever something supernatural happens. Ig’s brother’s drug trip overdose floods the stereo and surround channels with surrealistic noise and is probably the highlight – even more than the LFE-throbbing climatic transformation/final battle. The environmental effects are pretty understated, including breeze, rain, vehicles moving through frame, and the chatter of a busy bar. Though subtle, these sounds have plenty of depth and move throughout the speakers without overwhelming the steadily toned dialogue. Robin Coudert’s score alternates between ‘pretty’ symphonic melodies and rougher, electric guitar-driven dirges. The music occasionally takes the position of default ambient sound during quieter moments, but is more often treated as a supporting element. The pop and rock accompaniment is all way too obvious (almost every song used has been used in a better, more famous way in a different movie), but is well-integrated into the mix.
The only extra is The Making of Horns (18:50, HD), an EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette. It includes some on-set footage and interviews with the cast and crew, but is too generalized and fluffy to be very informative.
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