The possibility of noir in horror: A critical analysis of “Horns” (2013)

I saw “Horns” the other week. I’d read the book by Joe Hill a few years ago, but I don’t remember too much about it. It was written in that university-literate style that his father uses, so it was certainly readable, although I recall the conclusion being not so much a let down as a dribble off.

The movie certainly takes care of that–director Alexandre Aja added some supernatural fireworks to the ending. Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is accused of the murder of his girlfriend Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). And, to make matters worse, a pair of Satanic horns are sprouting from his forehead. As Perrish tries to clear his name, he finds that the horns have a dramatic–occasionally hilarious–effect on people: they candidly reveal their deepest, darkest desires. Gradually, Perrish turns into a demonic figure because…well, that’s never really clear. There are some contrivances and conveniences in the script–not the least of which is how a pale, alcoholic twerp like Perrish lands the ethereal Williams–and the dialogue sounds like writer Kevin Bunin has mistaken “edgy” with “add the word fuck every few minutes” (although that might be pure Hill on screen). The editing has a jerky feeling to it–perhaps Baxter, editor and occasional Aja collaborator, was unsure of how to handle the flashbacks. Still, it’s nice to see Radcliffe as a kind of supernatural straight man to the denizens of Gideon Bay as he investigates the dark dual nature of his hometown. And, perhaps because it’s a film–a visual medium–the movie more thoroughly explores noirish territory, something that I don’t recall from the book.

There is a sense of duality on the screen. In the opening scene, we focus on a shot of two lovers–Perrish and Williams. Mirrors, a standby of symbolic duality, are on steady supply to punctuate scenes when Perrish examines his growing horns. Additionally, Aja likes shots that juxtapose background and foreground to create both a sense of depth and duality (the furniture at Perrish’s parents’ house, Terry at the lake, the back of Perrish’s car at the dock). However, it is the shots that evoke a sense of dark duality that are the most interesting. The opening shot of two lovers in a sun drenched forest tilts to an upside down shot of Perrish alone, drunk and on the floor of his dark house, a debauched and solitary reflection of the first image that reveals what lies beneath it, both figuratively and literally.

Easily the best part of the movie is the second act, in which Perrish, while trying to clear his name, encounters people who are suddenly revealing their inner, darker nature (I am not the only person who found the mystery element the most interesting part of the film–and what noir is complete without a murder to solve?). Gideon Bay, on the surface and in the past, was an idyllic small town; now, it is a Hobbesian nightmare, a reversal of outside appearances. This is more than the idea that inside an attractive waitress is someone who enjoys seeing people miserable for her own gain; inside a local doctor is a lecherous drug user; and, in one of the film’s best and most infamous scenes, inside a group of dedicated small town reporters is a violent, Machiavellian mob. It’s the idea that all these scenarios exist the same time.

The idea that there is something evil underneath something familiar is not unknown in horror. What separates “Horns” is that there is an almost conspiratorial depth to the amount of darkness beneath the familiar, which is what separates true noir from the duality of horror. Horror film fans might be most familiar with this concept thanks to the opening scene of David Lynch’s crossover thriller “Blue Velvet,” in which we move from a hyper-realistic depiction of white picket Americana to the dark reality of murder–even literally going underneath a finely pruned green lawn to see the squirming insects within. Noir takes its cue from American detective pulps from the early 20th century. Anyone who is not familiar with Raymond Chandler’s opening paragraph of “Red Winds” should memorize it as soon as possible–it’s a beautiful piece of writing as well as an example of the conspiratorially dark depths of true noir.

But the perhaps the finest example comes from “The Possibility of Evil” by Shirley Jackson, one of America’s finest, quietest horror writers. In the short story, Adela Strangeworth walks Main Street USA as a sagely aged matriarch. But when she gets home, she retreats to her “light, lovely sitting room” and composes anonymous letters indicting members of her community as unfit parents, adulterers and medical extortionists. Jackson was the master of blending horror and noir. Her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” is similarly about exposing the horrific darkness beneath a small American town. “Possibility of Evil” takes it even further. There is even a duality to the duality; not only is Strangeworth much more, and much darker, than she seems on the surface, but the town itself may be being deeper and darker than it appears to be, if Strangeworth’s observations are to be believed; and the reader, by witnessing the letters and the final destructive action, becomes a silent partner in the conspiracy. By far, it is that kind of conspiracy which makes “Horns” its most compelling. Not merely the possibility of evil, but the iceberg reality of it; “Horns” is humorous on the surface, but like all good horror, a little uncomfortable underneath.


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