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Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t need Horns, but boy does Horns need Daniel Radcliffe. This is the Boy Who Lived after all, a young guy with so much pop cultural cachet that the idea of performing Equus seemed beneath him. Yet, even during his stint as the world’s most famous wizard, Radcliffe made moves to prove himself a real thespian and not just a child star doomed to fade away once his franchising bread and butter molded. He’s legit. He’s bona fide. He’s also, apparently, a fan of high concept horror, evidenced by his participation in films like The Woman in Black, next year’s adaptation of Frankenstein, and now the latest unsettling provocation from Alexandre Aja.

Fortunately for Radcliffe’s chops, Horns is the sort of horror outing that very much rides on the quality of its lead. We invest in Radcliffe, an actor who can cut a tragic figure in his sleep, from the first frame: we’re supposed to actually care about the characters here instead of viewing them as livestock dopily milling about the knacker’s yard. Stunt casting or not, Radcliffe singlehandedly elevates the entire goddamned picture, so the only question we’re left with is: What kind of film would this be without him?

Radcliffe plays Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, the top suspect in the vicious murder of his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). Ig predictably wants to clear his name amid the social furor surrounding her death, because even though his family has all the currency needed to keep him out of the courtroom and free from jail, pretty much everyone in his generic, sleepy hometown thinks he’s guilty. But then Ig wakes up and finds that he’s inexplicably sprouted a truly gnarly pair of horns on his noggin, and suddenly everybody around him—friend and stranger alike—just can’t help but confess to him (and sometimes act out) their basest desires. How best to use his newfound powers of persuasion? To play a game of whodunit, and maybe win some justice for the love of his life.

What follows is a welcome change of pace for Aja, long settled into his role as a purveyor of the extreme since debuting with High Tension in 2003. In his decade-spanning career, Aja has offended our delicate sensibilities with nasty little ditties ranging from The Hills Have Eyes and the screenplay for the awfully disturbing Maniac remake, to, most recently, Piranha 3D, a film that remains the definition of “guilty pleasure”. But Horns is a curveball: it shares little in common with his past efforts save for the fact that it’s based on another’s work, in this case Joe Hill, one of Stephen King’s two talented writer sons.

Hill penned his novel in 2010. Four years later, Aja, undoubtedly drawn to the text’s trippier, more gruesome elements, has affected a softer interpretation of Hill’s words; Horns is tame by both of their standards. It’s not that blood isn’t spilled here, but rather that it’s spilled infrequently. Of course, Aja uses every ounce of Kensington Gore he has at his fingertips—when occasion calls for it: people get impaled, heads get exploded—but Horns deals more in Ig’s tormented melancholy than it does in splatter. For gorehounds who seek out horror in hopes of watching graphic, cartoonishly inaccurate visual lectures on human physiology, the film will prove disappointing. For everyone else, Horns thrives in Radcliffe’s transformational performance and Aja’s attempt at sly cultural commentary.

As a showcase for the still young actor—bitter, vulnerable, grieving, and furious—the film is mesmerizing, but as a middle finger to mass media frenzies: less so. That’s probably because Aja drops his through line before the picture’s halfway mark (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the whole thing is about 20 minutes too long). Compared to David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that also centers on a man accused of killing his significant other, Horns is downright regressive in terms of its gender politics, but the real fun here lies in watching Radcliffe goad people into indulging their worse merits.

A visit to the doctor erupts into a wanton carnal display, a pack of reporters openly brawl in the streets for Ig’s attention, a bartender sets his establishment ablaze while one patron strips off his pants—these are the details that hold Aja’s interest. Coupled with Radcliffe, a solid supporting cast (including great turns by Temple, David Morse, and James Remar), and Aja’s now-dependable visual flair, Horns has plenty of bite—but what it’s gnawing on isn’t so clear.

Director: Alexandre Aja
Writer: Keith Bunin
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, James Remar, David Morse, Kathlee Quinlan, Kelli Garner
Release Date: Oct. 6th, 2014 (iTunes), Oct. 31st, 2014 (theatrical)

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.

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