Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Horns is many things, none of which are routine. It’s a far-fetched but often hilarious comedy about a guy named Ignatius "Ig" Perrish, who's somehow grown devil’s horns out of the sides of his forehead that make people submit to their basest instincts in his presence—as in, whip their penises out in public, stuff their faces with pastries, and have wild sex in doctor’s chairs. It’s also a tragic romance, showing Ig’s longtime love for his childhood sweetheart, Merrin (Juno Temple), and how it gets destroyed when Merrin is raped and murdered. Thus, it’s both a murder mystery and riff on the "wrongly accused man" thriller trope. Lastly, Horns is, at its core, a horror-fantasy, using homicidal snakes to its advantage, subverting Lucifer imagery, and featuring one of the craziest “exploding head” moments since David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
Directed by French horror champ Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D), Horns is an adaptation of the tonally wonky and altogether singular 2011 novel written by Joe Hill, the excellent genre fiction author who also happens to be Stephen King’s son. With Aja and Hill’s names involved, it’s no wonder that the film marries scares with laughs, but there’s another wild card attached to Horns that elevates it to maximum interest. The actor playing Ig—a social pariah who, throughout the course of Horns, gets shit-faced drunk, has sex in a treehouse, and turns into Beelzebub himself—is Daniel Radcliffe.
Harry Potter has evolved into Satan.
Horns is the latest leap forward in the 25-year-old Radcliffe’s post-Hogwarts career, and it’s a bold and fascinating one. In this lively, loose chat, Radcliffe and Alex Aja discuss why fans of Hogwarts are in for one seriously unique surprise.
When my friends have asked me to describe Horns to them, it’s usually around the part where I say “devil’s horns grow out of this guy’s head” that they give me a weird, sideways look, and I lose them. Has it been tough selling this bizarre, almost unclassifiable movie to people so far?
Daniel Radcliffe: [Laughs.] You know—and I mean this with huge amounts of love for the film, because I obviously fucking love it and I’m going to keep telling people about it until someone makes me stop—it’s one of those things that’s almost hard to summarize without making it sound a bit like crap. If you start off by telling people that it’s about a guy who grows devil’s horns out of his head, they start picturing something really silly, right? Most people’s imaginations aren’t as good as Joe Hill’s, so when you feed the same information in, other people get this silly picture whereas in Joe’s head, of course, it’s this fully-fledged, awesome, dark, complex story and character drama.
The way I have been describing it to people is, it’s about a guy whose girlfriend has been raped and murdered, and after a night of debauchery and ill-advised sex with a friend, he wakes up to discover there are horns growing out of his head, and over the next three days he tries to figure out both why he’s turning into the devil and who really killed his girlfriend. So that’s become my 30-second pitch, but it’s really hard to do justice to it by just describing it with just words.
Horns never stops shifting its tones, switching from comedy to horror or romance all within the same scenes. Alex, was it difficult to navigate through that as the director?
Alexandre Aja: What’s funny is that I didn’t even realize the story is like that when I was reading it, honestly. When I was reading Joe Hill’s book, I completely got it. I saw it on the screen instantly. I knew exactly what we could do with it. I saw it at this kind of weird reversal of It’s a Wonderful Life, but with a fantasy/horror twist to it. It’s only really when I started talking with other people and collaborators about my passion for this movie that I realized how the constantly shifting tones were an issue for a lot of people. It reminds me a lot of what I experienced with Piranha; when I set out to make that film, a lot of people didn’t think we’d be able to do that kind of extreme horror-comedy—they didn’t think it would work. So just imagine what I encountered with Horns. [Laughs.] Compared to Horns, Piranha is a simple film.
But then I started answering everyone the same way Joe Hill had been, by saying, “Why can’t what works in a book also work the same way on the screen?” Why do we have to be put in boxes? Why are we letting marketing dictate movies in the way that they have to be, say, a proper horror movie? Or a proper comedy? Or a proper drama? Why can’t they be all of those things at the same time? Movies in the past, ones that have nothing to do with this one, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, go into so many different zones and so many different styles. I’ve always thought that the point of a fable is to tell an almost biblical tale where a character goes through all kinds of different motivations and emotions and conflicts.
You can’t fool the character. I didn’t want to make a movie that would be like changing channels on a TV. I wanted to make a proper story about Ig Perrish, but I wanted to keep everything that made the book so exciting to me in the beginning, and that was not an easy thing. At first, some people were saying, “You know what? Maybe we should lose the comedy,” or, “Maybe we should lose the horror,” or, “Maybe we should just focus on the love story.” Everyone had an idea of what we should do, but I always had the dedication to just go back to my earliest feelings as a reader of Joe Hill’s book. I wanted the audience to have the same emotions as I had reading the book.
You’ve made certain small changes between the book and the movie, like with Ig’s horns, which in the movie look much subtler. Did you feel the need to tone some of the book’s wilder images down in order to make them work on the screen?
Aja: As a filmmaker, the only thing that’s really important is making sure your film works as a proper film, that it’s entertaining for people in the audience. So the way the horns are described in the book, and that’s a great example, they were a little bit more over-the-top. It’s funny when you’re reading about them like that, but when you’re trying to put those up on the screen, it could’ve taken the audience out of the experience. It wouldn’t have worked visually to have the audience try and buy these big red horns that look like they’re from a Halloween costume. So I wanted to find a way to transform Ig Perrish into the devil in a very organic way, to make people forget about the horns the same way people who see him in the movie forget about them, because they’re under his spell while in his presence.
I wanted to go in very realistic direction. The whole challenge of the movie was to create a bridge between this hyper-real American, Kurt Cobain’s Seattle-looking town vibe and a biblical world that’s like Paradise Lost. I wanted to create that bridge because that’s the best way to keep the audience connected to the story as it gets crazier and crazier.
Daniel, coming off of the Harry Potter movies, you must've been seeking out characters through which you could show off range. In that respect, Horns seems like the perfect project.
Radcliffe: Exactly, yeah. There’s just nothing else like Horns out there. You read a lot of scripts without ever saying, “God, this is totally original!” And that was Horns. Also, there are a lot of things you read and you say, “You know, I really like the idea of this, but I’m not totally connecting with it.” There’s a difference between liking something and wanting to jump up on the table and yell, “I will not allow another actor to play this part!” [Laughs.] That’s kind of the reaction that Horns got out of me. As I was reading it, I couldn’t imagine sitting in a cinema in a year or so’s time, looking at that movie, and seeing somebody else in that part. I had that sense of very quickly, so I said to myself, “I better get on with this and try and get this job.”
It’s almost like you’re playing three different characters, right?
Radcliffe: Absolutely, but I’ll say that it’s not just because I was coming out of the Harry Potter movies. For any actor, to show so much range in one project is exciting. Regardless of anything I’d done, that was the thing that was the most exciting to me about the script. First and foremost, I responded to how funny the beginning was, and how well-written it all was. Like, if you grew horns like this, yes, you would definitely freak out, run to a doctor, and try to get them chopped off. That’s when I knew I really liked it, when I saw that Ig was going through all of the same thought processes and done all the same things I would have done if I’d woken up with horns. That was a sign of good writing to me.
Did you respond more to the comedy side, then?
Radcliffe: Actually, I think what excited me the most about it was the love story and the ending, where you find out what was really going on with Merrin the whole time. That very emotional story is what anchors the film and elevates it from being just another sort of very entertaining horror-comedy. It makes it have a lasting emotional impact. That love story is so key to the film.
Younger love stories in movies can be dicey. But between Horns and your other film this year, the romantic comedy What If, you’ve shown a strong eye for interesting young love stories.
Radcliffe: Thank you very much. The relationship in Horns is a version of a relationship that many people have had. It’s that thing of, when you first fell in love with a girl, that feeling you had the first time you escaped from your home and snuck off to her home, and forming that relationship for the first time. It’s that initial flush of first love that carries on for Ig and Merrin. They were living in that sort of perpetual heaven for a very long time, and Joe Hill brilliantly created that just as Alex Aja has brilliantly reconstructed it. It’s an untainted, innocent love, and then, of course, we all destroy it as the story goes on. [Laughs.] There’s something so moving and universal about the love story, and that’s what makes it so heartbreaking to see it torn apart.
Switching gears quite a bit here, briefly in a previous interview you mentioned that have a strong interest in the Devil’s mythology, even citing the great Russian novel The Master and Margarita, written by Mikhail Bulgakov. Has that interest always been there for you?
Radcliffe: Yeah, The Master and Margarita is my all-time favorite book. One of the first conversations Alex and I had was about the devil in popular culture and literature and music. The frequency with which he turns up is remarkable, and this is essentially the bad guy of all time, right? And yet he is so often written about, and when he’s written about it’s in a much more interesting way than God ever is. [Laughs.] He’s always a much more charismatic character than God.
The classic example is Paradise Lost—John Milton obviously created a great, fascinating character in the devil, and then, as a very religious man, felt sort of appalled that he had done that. So he tried to write Paradise Regained with Jesus as the central figure, and it was just boring—no one cared.
The devil is just an amazing character. I think there are so many references to him in popular culture because there’s something to his origin story about being a fallen angel, which means that there is the potential for both good and evil within him at all times. That’s maybe something that human beings can relate to a lot more than someone who’s just either purely good or purely evil all the time
Especially in genre movies, particularly horror, the devil is always presented as this purely evil, sinister force. Horns is the first movie in a long time to give the devil multiple facets.
Radcliffe: Definitely. There’s a great line that was in the script at one point, and I’m not sure if it was cut from the final version of the movie, where he says, “The devil is the only person who loves us for who we truly are,” warts and all. I think there’s something to that in Ig’s character—he’s someone who, with his horns, gives people the permission to express how they truly feel. Ig is one of the most interesting versions of the devil I’ve ever seen or read. I feel incredibly honored to get to play him.
It’s, to say the least, a dramatic shift away from Harry Potter.
Radcliffe: [Laughs.] I can’t imagine a more dramatic one.
Horns opens in limited theaters today, via Radius-TWC; it's also currently available on digital VOD.