Horns: Toronto Review

Horror fable works surprisingly well given its unlikely stew of genre traits.

Joe Hill's novel makes for a peculiar kind of horror film starring Daniel Radcliffe.

TORONTO — A fable-like horror mystery with strong comic and romantic tendencies, Alexandre Aja's Horns draws on source material by cult scribe (and son of Stephen King) Joe Hill to deliver something much more beguiling than the straighter genre fare (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) that made his name. Daniel Radcliffe in the lead should help get audiences past the bizarreness of the premise -- a man wrongly accused of killing his girlfriend turns into the Devil, sort of -- but the pic's ability not to stumble under its peculiar mix of elements is what makes it worth distributors' time.

Radcliffe is Ig Perrish, who has become a pariah in his community since his girlfriend-since-childhood was found dead in the woods. "What does it feel like to get away with murder?" someone shouts in opening scenes, angry that the local cops (though convinced he's guilty) can't find the evidence to prosecute him. As if to answer that protester's question, the movie has him wake up one morning to find horns sprouting -- as quickly as a shame-inducing cold sore, but a good deal more painful -- from his temples.

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As he tries futilely to remove them, Ig observes that the horns have a strange effect on people: Instead of turning from him in horror, they start oversharing their dark secrets and impulses. A woman with a shrieking toddler sweetly discusses kicking the child across the room; a doctor offers to share the pain pills he's about to crush up for recreational use.

Realizing he can use his new powers to hunt for the person who actually killed his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple, seen in flashbacks that establish the old-fashioned sweetness of their true-blue bond), he inadvertently learns things he wishes he didn't have to know. His mom, much as she loves him, secretly wishes he'd just go away so she didn't have to defend him; his dad, though he too has been supportive, believes deep down that he's the killer. And there's worse to be learned. Only childhood friend Lee (Max Minghella), now a public defender keeping Ig out of jail, seems wholly on his side.

While this all begins as a kind of supernatural black comedy, with plenty of Biblical allusions echoing the Edenic nature of the treehouse where Ig and Merrin spent their happiest hours, the tone grows darker with each revelation. It's a full-grown horror movie in the third act, with Ig commanding an army of serpents and tormenting those whose lies have created the hell he inhabits. Radcliffe takes to this vengeful-demon stuff with relish.

While the flashbacks (pre-horns) get to tell a straightforward romantic story, full of lovely Pacific Northwest settings and pre-teen whimsy, only one part of the present-tense tale seems untouched by the supernatural: In encounters with Merrin's emotionally devastated dad (David Morse), Ig's horns seem to be both invisible and irrelevant: Convinced that the boy he treated like a son really killed his daughter, Mr. Williams is as full of heartbroken rage at Ig is at the rest of the world. Their encounters ground the story, keeping its goofier elements from overshadowing its heart.

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Tech values are surprisingly strong, with longtime David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch D.P. Frederick Elmes doing camera duties. Generally excellent effects work makes those horns (and later developments) look quite realistic.

Production Companies: Red Granite Pictures, Mandalay Pictures
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, Heather Graham, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan, James Remar
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenwriter: Keith Bunin; based on the novel by Joe Hill
Producers: Cathy Schulman, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Alexandre Aja
Executive producers: Joe Hill, Shawn Williamson, Adam Stone, Joe Gatta, Christian Mercuri, Danny Dimbort
Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: Allan Cameron
Music: Robin Coudert

Costume designer: Carol Beadle
Editor: Baxter
Sales: Graham Taylor & Deb McIntosh, WME
No rating, 123 minutes