There is a sore lack of proper appreciation for B-movies in contemporary film culture. At best, they’re enjoyed as mindless guilty pleasures, not to be taken seriously as pieces of filmmaking. As a fairly high-budget film that nonetheless possesses distinct B-influenced levity, Horns is unlikely to change that, but it may at least remind film lovers that style and substance often work as something of a ying-yang in which the strengths of one side work to compensate for the deficiencies of the other. A typical pulp mystery at heart, Horns’s primary deficiencies stem from its lack of efforts to subvert the genre’s more overused tropes, particularly with regards to the rather sexist Madonna/whore binary in which it locks some of its female characters.
Indeed, among the many characters who confess their dirtiest (and almost always sex-related) secrets to bereaved murder suspect Ig (a very earnest Daniel Radcliffe, sporting a mostly convincing American accent) under the influence of his inexplicable new horns, most of the women are “whores” in either the figurative sense (a TV journalist ready to do anything for an exclusive interview and a vain waitress willing to lie and ruin lives just to become famous) or in the patriarchal sense (a mother having an affair with her golf teacher, a female friend and one-night-stand of Ig’s whose sexual promiscuity is treated with pity). The murder victim herself, Ig’s girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple, whose subtle performance humanizes a theoretically one-dimensional role), is at the center of the plot not only as the main events’ catalyst but also as a figure whose interactions with peripheral characters suggest she may not have been all that she seemed. This could have been a good opportunity to break from the sexist binary and deconstruct the fantasized image of an innocent nubile nymph that director Alexandre Aja has given of Merrin in flashbacks – unfortunately, screenwriter Keith Bunin’s choice to stick with Joe Hill’s original twists means the third act reaffirms her status as an idealized tragic victim, whose behaviour was entirely dictated by her love for her man.
Thankfully, most of these shortfalls are redeemed by Aja’s acidic sense of humour and inspired stylistic choices. By infusing his rural noir setting with progressive rock sensibilities, Aja redirects both crime thriller and gothic fantasy clichés into an energetic and frequently funny cocktail of Miltonian symbolism and genre parody. The biblical allusions make no attempt to be subtle and the riffs on small town hypocrisy and media exploitation aren’t exactly new, but Aja combines and balances them with such deftness that they blend in together quite seamlessly, in such a way that it often feels like a concept album adapted without its songs. The third act is all the bigger a letdown for it, as it casts aside its impertinent wit in favour of an all-too-familiar pattern of resurgence, reconciliation, retribution and redemption. Still, Horns has enough zest and gusto for it to be recommended as a testament to the value of B-movie influences.