“Are you horny?”
This is the first line in the film adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel Horns – a story of grief, obsession, faith, death, and overwhelming love – of Ig Perrish, “cursed” with a pair of devil’s horns (and all the powers that come with them) slowly growing from his skull in the aftermath of his soul mate’s rape and murder.
And we start off with a pun.
I nearly walked out of the cinema there and then. But I didn’t. Hill does lay the foreshadowing, wordplay and symbolism on thickly in the novel – to either heartbreaking or eye-rolling effect. It’s never entirely clear if Satan himself is hounding Ig, or if Hill is just unsure if you get it quite yet. So perhaps, I thought, as characters repeated expository dialogue for the third time, the film was tapping into the more awkward aspect of the writing. And, thankfully, the onslaught of devil iconography present in the novel does not make an appearance in the film.
This may be because the film is too wary of its own source material to commit. Hill’s novel plays with the roles of God and The Devil, twisting and reversing them. Our protagonist transforms slowly, agonizingly, into a literal devil, and his best friend – Lee, the Man of God – lives a lie. Underneath his facade, he is anything but righteous. The film is very clearly aware that this is a controversial statement, and instead of embracing and running with the clever concepts and questions that rise from this idea, shies from it.
The climax of the novel is incredible; Ig is crowned in fire and brimstone, taking his place with his lost love as, in the book’s own words, “a prince of Hell.” It’s a powerful passage, and one I was very excited to see visualized. The film gives us a toothless, insulting, “maybe we are in Heaven” rewrite. It makes a fan of the book wonder what the point of adapting such a novel is, if you are too scared of the themes to commit them to screen. But then, that fan remembers that Hill is the son of one of the most famous horror writers of all time.
There is also, bafflingly, conformity and lack of faith within the film’s very soundtrack. Ig’s family are jazz musicians. Music is a huge part of his identity. The sound of saxophones should have drifted through this film like its very bloodstream. But instead, we have a generic rock based soundtrack. Marilyn Manson’s “Personal Jesus,” for god’s sake.
Parts of this film work. The tragic reveal of the fate of Merrin, Ig’s girlfriend, brought a tear to my eye. As it should. There was never to be a happy ending, and it didn’t matter if it was Man or God who intervened. But this scene worked because it was verbatim from the novel. I know Hill did work on this adaptation, which is why I left the cinema so confused and – honestly – feeling cheated. Horns should have been filmed to revel in the darkness, embracing its religious themes without fear; brutal and beautiful, slick and sharp as the snakes that are drawn to Ig as he accepts his new powers and enacts his revenge. The adaptation was choked out of life through fear of backlash, replaced with banality and meandering dialogue.
If you haven’t read the book, this may be a cheesy, decently made romp of a film with That Guy Who Played Harry Potter. As a fan of the book, it is lifeless and cowardly.
Emma Whitehall is a writer and spoken-word performer based in the North East of England. Her work focuses around horror, erotica and dark fantasy, and has been featured in print on both sides of the Atlantic; her paranormal love story “Waiting” was translated into Spanish, and her short story “Shed” was featured in a charity anthology for the American independent publishing company, Hazardous Press – who also published her erotic horror story, “Blood and Lust,” in 2013. She has also recently made her foray into book reviewing.
She has released two self-published collections of stories and poetry: Kallisto’s Tales in 2012, and Dust Motes and Faded Green Velvet in 2014. Both can be purchased from lulu.com or amazon.co.uk.