In Horns (2013), Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe), a man accused of murdering his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple), grows devil horns that cause everyone in his presence to admit their dirtiest thoughts and feelings. This “gift” is utilized to bring out the truth about the murder and reveal who actually committed the crime. After that happens, Ig has to decide how to handle the information he’s learned, and has to choose how he wants to deal with the person who actually killed his woman. He has to rely on his devilish abilities to prove his innocence.
Does that mean Horns considers the devil a “good guy?” It’s a complicated question, and the answer hangs in the viewer’s interpretation of the film’s devil character. As far as star Daniel Radcliffe and director Alexandre Aja are concerned, no. They don’t see Ig’s character in Horns as a representation of the devil, he’s merely a character whose physical representation is based in identifiable religious symbolism and mythology in an effort to visually represent his inner turmoil.
In an interview with Word and Film’s Dave Odegard, Aja said “I think one of the reasons I wanted to make this movie is that I thought the use of the Christian mythology in the story just to create an allegory about revenge, about first love, about loss of innocence, and all that was such a strong idea. I’m personally not a religious person, but I understand all those very high concepts. A myth to tell the story and kind of illustrate everything we’re going through when we’re going through similar situations in our lives.”
Radcliffe gave his input in an interview with Christina Radish of Collider, where he discusses his character not truly being the devil, but a man getting some devilish qualities he could use to his benefit: “I’m not a religious person, but I have always been fascinated by the mythology and imagery in all religions, particularly Christianity, which has got some fantastic stuff in there. Weirdly, when we first met, we had a discussion and I was worried that I came off a little bit creepy with my obsession with the devil as a character in literature. He is traditionally this very, very charismatic character, so I was very excited to play him.”
Alexandre Aja maintains that the use of common biblical/devil symbolism was the most effective way to resonate the material with the audience.
“They’ll be able to understand in a very a deep way all the symbols because those symbols are part of our culture. They’re everywhere. I thought it was an interesting thing to assume that people would come to the movie with that knowledge already.”
It’s a valid point - if you want to create a story about a man who is demonized by his friends, family, and community, and essentially becomes that demon, the easiest physical representation of that is religious material. But it does have its interpretive risks.
Joe Hill, the author of the book upon which the story is based, does go so far as to say he sees the devil as a sort of superhero. In an interview with Sam Adams of Biography, Hill said “The book made the argument that the devil and God were working on the same side, that the idea they were adversaries missed that they each have their own function. We have a character in the devil who is comfortable with wickedness, but this wickedness tends to be a force for good. I kind of feel like the devil is a superhero. He has a great superhero look, with the horns, a great superhero weapon — Thor had the hammer, Captain America has his shield, the devil has a pitchfork — he can talk to animals like Aquaman, and in his first adventure the devil frees two naked prisoners being held in a jungle gulag by a megalomaniac, and he sets them free, introduces fruit into their diet, and awakens them to their own sexuality. I think that’s so positive. He’s like a cross between Animal Man and Dr. Ruth. Where did we get the idea this was the bad guy? He seems pretty cool. I do think Ig would fit nicely on the Avengers.”
That’s a strange interpretation of the devil, but an important part of Hill’s quote is the idea that the devil and God are working on the same side. There isn’t one without the other - and in the case of Horns, Ig’s character possesses both good and questionable qualities, and gets the chance to choose between them in the film’s climax.
At the end of the film, Ig attempts to put aside his hatred and contempt for the man who actually killed Merrin. There’s a moment where he’s given a choice of acting out revenge or forgiveness, and he chooses forgiveness, thinking it’s what Merrin would have wanted of him. Ultimately Merrin’s murderer doesn’t allow Ig’s mercy to stand, and Ig chooses the path of vengeance. The scene goes so far as to employ a “fallen angel” reference, where Ig temporarily sprouts wings before crashing back to the earth and turning into a super beast. It’s a pretty goofy scene, but definitely comes across on the surface as an image of evil prevailing in the end. Because of that, it’s easy to see why people, particularly religious individuals, don’t quite approve of the “heroic devil” approach of Horns.
But Ig doesn’t survive the story, so his vengeance wasn’t quite a victory. He took the path of the horns in the end, but it cost him. The devil in Horns is a superhero in the sense that he’s the subject of the piece, he’s the one we’re rooting for, and he’s the one innocent of the crimes of which he’s been accused. But he’s more visual than substantial, and the “normal human” part of Ig could just as easily represent Godliness, making Ig a reflection of both.