Don’t let the premise of HORNS fool you. Though there are gigantic horns growing out of Ig’s (Daniel Radcliffe) forehead and murder is the centerpiece of the film, it is not a horror film. In fact, nearly every aspect of this film and its production point toward it being a horror film, but at its very core, it is a beautiful love story. Love can be a more extreme emotion than fear, and director Alexandre Aja is known for his extremes.
Aja was first noticed internationally for 2003’s HIGH TENSION. The film was one of the most violent films released that year, and the brutality left much of the film community paying close attention to the gruesome horror films streaming out of France. Dubbed part of the New French Extremity, Aja’s film is among a group of films that share a fixation on brutality expressed in various ways, ranging from extreme sex and violence to body horror (horror films where the human body is the cause of the horror) to exploitation themed horror. While Hollywood’s cameras tend to flinch away from the action, these New French Extremity films refuse to shy away from showing the consequences of violence. The originality of the films and the audience’s craving for new blood in horror was noticed by major American studios and soon Aja directed the remake of Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES and PIRANHA 3D.
In addition to having a well-known horror director shooting HORNS, the book on which it is based has deep horror roots. HORNS is an adaptation of Joe Hill’s 2010 novel of the same name. Hill is an accomplished horror and dark fantasy writer who just so happens to be Stephen King’s son. Wanting to avoid sitting in his father’s massive shadow, Hill adopted a pen name. The apple did not fall far from the tree as Hill’s first publication, a collection of short stories, won the 2005 Bram Stoker award for best fiction collection, and his novels have spent time on bestseller lists.
Between Aja’s penchant for cinematic brutality and Hill’s horror dynasty, one would think that a meeting of these two talents would create the greatest horror masterpiece, but instead, HORNS focuses on love.
There can be endless interpretations of a film, but my experience when watching HORNS was the beauty of love and the deep loss felt when love ends earlier than it should. The film starts in the present, some time after Ig’s girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) was found murdered. Ig has been accused of the murder in their small town and is trying to deal with the daily consequences of the accusation. Just driving to his parents’ house for breakfast is a burden to take on with news crews following him everywhere in hopes of an exclusive sound bite. Ig has lost the love of his life, and is not able to be at peace, which to him feels like hell. When the horns sprout of out his head suddenly, that hell now has a physical representation.
Merrin seemed to be the perfect complement to Ig. Through flashbacks, we see their love start when they are very young and mature into a beautiful connection between two souls. With Merrin gone, Ig does not know who he is without her. Being accused of her murder only makes the loss more biting.
As Ig’s horns grow and he attempts to find her real killer, it becomes clear that the driving force behind the plot is not the gigantic horns or their magical powers. Everything Ig does throughout the film is to find the true killer, but Ig’s quest is not a selfish one. While it would be nice to clear his name, Ig is much more haunted by his drive to recapture the purity of his love with Merrin. As long as the murder accusation is still out there, his history with Merrin is tarnished. The townsfolk in their tiny hamlet see Ig as a menace and think that he preyed upon Merrin. Ig knows that he and Merrin had true love, and for the sake of that love, Ig must find out the truth.
Perhaps it is both Hill and Aja’s history with horror that allows the horror to drop by the wayside in favor of a love story. Directors less desensitized to horror elements may have had no skill to casually have a character going through such a radical physical transformation. Aja, on the other hand, is accustomed to axe murderers and mutant hill people driving forward a plot as fully realized and, at times, sympathetic characters. This numbness to the horror elements could help Aja boil down HORNS to its true essence as love story. By focusing on Ig and Merrin’s love, rather than the grotesque physical transformation, he was able to give Ig’s story justice.