When Daniel Radcliffe awakens with two curious bumps growing from his forehead in the compelling black comedy Horns, we know things are going to get devilishly wicked.
Horns have symbolised sin, sex and all things Satanic for centuries. But, just as things aren’t quite so straightforward in Horns, being blessed with a set of horns has suggested all manner of things in fiction and folklore. Film is no different – writer and journalist Gavin Baddeley locks horns with ten of cinema’s most memorable variations on the theme…
In Disney’s impressive catalogue of villains, few if any are as outright demonic as Chernabog, the devil who debuted in Fantasia, the studio’s epic animated introduction to classical music. The towering embodiment of evil, presiding over a witches’ hellfire Sabbath, Chernabog’s horns are the crown for a true prince of darkness.
Some worried that the sequence was too scary for younger fans, while a Fundamentalist Christian named Perucci Ferraiuolo went so far as to dismiss the scene as ‘an almost total glorification of witchcraft, sorcery and Satanism set to classical music’, in his book Disney and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Magic Kingdom. The character’s been toned down and tamed in more recent decades, with official sources insisting that Chernabog was just a bogeyman from Slavic folklore, rather than the Devil himself (though Walt himself had suggested otherwise).
The Devil’s Rain
Hollywood horror films largely steered clear of overt Satanic themes for fear of upsetting Christians and censors, until 1968, when the critical and box office success of Rosemary’s Baby spawned a wave of Satanic shockers. In Rosemary’s Baby, the film’s young heroine is raped by the Devil after being drugged by Satanists, though the film’s director, Roman Polanski, wisely only allows the audience fleeting, sinister glimpses of the monstrous, scaly assailant.
Subsequent Satanic blockbusters, such as The Exorcist and The Omen, followed suit, aware that a fully-fledged, horned Prince of Darkness risked looking a little camp or even comedic. No such concerns troubled the makers of The Devil’s Rain, a 1975 occult thriller that attempted to cash-in on the fad for Satanic cinema. It failed, despite boasting an intriguing cast that includes William Shatner, fresh from his stints on Star Trek, and John Travolta in his first film role. Taking on the villain’s mantle was the craggy character actor Ernest Borgnine as the immortal black magician Jonathon Corbis, who, during the film’s fun but interminable climax, grows an impressive set of ram’s horns to underline his unholy status.
Tim the Enchanter
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Horns can also imply power of a less overtly Hellish nature. One tradition has it that Hebrew prophet Moses had horns, though many now think this idea the result of a scriptural mistranslation (a famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo still boasts a discreet pair).
In Monty Python’s 1976 parody of Arthurian legend, they equip the sinister, one-eyed Scottish sorcerer our knightly heroes encounter with a headdress surmounted by a striking set of horns. They help give gravitas to the character (played by John Cleese) whose name, Tim, doesn’t immediately suggest great mystical power. Tim flings a mean fireball, and turns out to have some useful advice for our heroes in their quest regarding a sharp-toothed, fluffy beast they must face, advice which they sadly scorn…
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
Effects wizard Ray Harryhausen introduced generations of youngsters to classical mythology and the exotic tales of The Arabian Nights, via the monsters and legendary creatures he brought to life via the magic of stop-motion animation.
The plots typically take numerous liberties with the original stories, but it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the inimitable Harryhausen monsters that are inevitably the true stars of every film they inhabit. Several have horns, implying formidable bestial strength, such as the one-eyed Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which he equips with goat legs and a single horn on his forehead. Every Harryhausen fan has a favourite creation, but it’s difficult to beat the Minaton, a metallic monstrosity clearly inspired by the Ancient Greek Minotaur. While the original was a bull-headed man who feasted on human flesh, Harryhausen’s Minaton is brought to life by sorcery in the 1977 Arabic adventure Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, in order to do the bidding of the wicked queen Zenobia.
The Lord of Darkness
Horns don’t always signify evil, or bestial ferocity. The unicorn, for example, is considered the epitome of virtue and grace in medieval folklore, a mythic equine creature of such purity that tradition had it that its horn could be used to detect or even neutralise poison.
In Ridley Scott’s 1985 dark fairytale Legend, unicorn horns are at the core of the plot, coveted by the film’s villain the Lord of Darkness, played with lip-smacking relish by Tim Curry. Scott cast Curry after seeing his career-defining performance as Dr Frank N. Furter, the ‘sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania’ in the cult musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The actor’s performance as Legend’s devilish arch-villain is almost as iconic, not least due to the striking make-up effects, which gave Curry’s character a muscular scarlet physique, cloven hooves, and two of the largest black horns ever seen on the big screen.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Proving that absolutely nothing was sacred to the makers of the exuberantly offensive cartoon series South Park, the show’s creators parodied the Prince of Darkness himself. He first appears in the 1998 episode ‘Damien’, where Satan has a boxing match with Jesus, though we get to know the character better when the cartoon transferred to the big screen the following year.
While superficially fearsome, with a heavy, crimson torso and – of course – a pair of horns, inevitably South Park’s version of the personification of absolute evil is actually rather absurd, even pathetic. In the film we learn that Satan is trapped in an abusive relationship with the deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who exploits the devil’s affections for loveless sex and to further his plans for world domination. At a stroke this oddly sympathetic Satan subverted both the US government’s demonisation of Hussein and evangelical Christians who blame all of the world’s ills on a literal Devil.
By the mid-1980s, almost every edgy character actor in Hollywood had taken a stab at playing the ultimate antihero. As a rule, however, any portrayal wishing to avoid risking a lapse into parody or pantomime, hinted at horns at most. So, for example, Al Pacino in Angelheart (1987), Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy (1995) and Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) maintain a little subtlety in their interpretations by avoiding horny Halloween clichés.
By way of contrast, in the 2000 comedy Little Nicky, Harvey Keitel’s Satan certainly doesn’t, and is arguably the best thing in the film, but as it’s an Adam Sandler film that might not be saying too much.
You might argue that technically, Hellboy doesn’t belong on this list, as he diligently files down his horns as a concrete indication that he’s turned his back on his hellish heritage in favour of fighting for the good guys.
Originally a popular comicbook, the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro brought the supernatural superhero to the big screen in 2004. Del Toro cast the gruff, lantern-jawed actor Ron Perlman in the lead, and Perlman’s experience playing roles in heavy prosthetic make-up and rough, no-nonsense delivery helped give reality and dignity to a character that might otherwise have come across as hopelessly cartoonish. Justifying his place in this list, we know Big Red’s in danger of turning to the dark side when his horns magically grow back in the film’s taut climax.
In another entry for director Guillermo del Toro we encounter a figure from ancient folklore in the seriously dark modern, 2006 cinematic fairytale Pan’s Labyrinth.
According to del Toro, the English translation from the original Spanish is inaccurate, and the horned entity at the film’s heart is not the Ancient Greek nature god Pan. Rather it is a faun, the Roman equivalent of the Greek satyr – Pan’s horned, goat-footed companions – the party-lovers of Ancient legend, who delight in sex and wine and flute music.
The faun in Pan’s Labyrinth has something of a Celtic look, but in common with many pagan entities isn’t outright good or evil (that mantle falls upon the heroine’s brutal, fascist stepfather). Rather, the faun is a trickster, capable of mischief or even violence, but also of invaluable help to our heroine.
The first thing most kids learn about Vikings is that they raided the coasts of Europe wearing horned helmets. The second thing they often learn is that this is a common misconception, a myth most likely concocted by Christian historians to make their erstwhile tormentors seem more devilish and wicked.
As a rule, the more concerned a Viking film is with historical accuracy, the less likely you are to see any horns on helmets. So, for example, in a cartoon like Asterix and the Vikings (2006) there are horned helmets aplenty (alongside anachronistic references to SMS messages, Abba and flat-pack furniture).
The 2009 Marvel blockbuster Thor has the twin excuse of not only being based on Norse myth, but also based on a comic based on Norse myth. Faithful to its Marvel inspiration, Thor puts its villain, the trickster god Loki, in a formidably horned helm. As played by Tom Hiddleston, gave his portrayal a lean, arch charisma that turned Loki into something of a heartthrob in geek circles.
From master-of-horror Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D) comes this supernatural, offbeat thriller starring beloved British actor Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, Kill Your Darlings) and the talented Juno Temple (Magic Magic, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is accused for the violent rape and killing of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple). After a hard night of drinking, Ig awakens, hungover, to find horns growing out of his head; they have the ability to drive people to confess sins and give in to selfish impulses. Ig decides to use this effective tool to discover the circumstances of his girlfriend’s death and to seek revenge by finding the true murderer.
Daniel and Juno lead an all-star cast with strong support from David Morse (The Green Mile, The Hurt Locker) and Heather Graham (The Hangover I&II, Boogie Nights).
HORNS is based on the dark fantasy novel of the same name from New York Times best-selling author Joe Hill (Heart Shaped Box) with a screenplay by Keith Burnin. Alexandre Aja, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland and Cathy Schulman produce.
HORNS is in UK cinemas on 29th October 2014
Keep your conscience clear and #ConfesstotheDevil