Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) lives up to his fiery namesake by waking up from a bender as a devil in not-so-inconspicuous disguise, with horns protruding from his forehead that give him the power to divine people’s deepest, often naughtiest, secrets. Yesterday he was a hangdog, seemingly resigned to the fact that no one would ever believe that he didn’t kill the love of his life, Merrin (Juno Temple), even if he couldn’t quite remember what he did after she broke his heart and he tumbled into a boozy oblivion. Today he’s an impish oracle, knowing that his old buddies turned cops are closet cases with the hots for each other, that his mother wishes he would skedaddle from her life, and that a screaming brat’s mom thinks of her black lover as a “jigaboo.” Following author Joe Hill’s lead, Alexandra Aja’s film adaptation sees Ig’s power as both gift and burden, but in his similar intertwining of goodness and blasphemy, however playfully, he corroborates the source novel’s flimsiness as theological discourse.
Hill begins his novel as a vibrantly detailed Kafka-esque freak-out. If Ig’s metamorphosis into a devil incarnate feels less like a conceit in search of motivation on the page, it’s because Hill’s often bitter nostalgia for youth, recalling the richest passages from father Stephen King’s masterwork, It, hints at Ig struggling to reconcile his present-day tragedy with his youthful idealism. Aja is faithful enough to the novel’s more cunning toying with chronology, thrillingly capturing the rich passage in which young Ig and his friends perilously goof off near a river by using a cherry bomb to blow up a turkey, but he’s mostly interested in his characters’ youthful reverie insofar as it allows him to push to the surface the red herrings that Hill was careful to make undiscernible. Aja, too, has his eyes set less on the notion of reckoning than he does on literalizing the inner states of characters who’ve been warped by religion, opening the film with a wonky—possibly Gaspar Noé-inspired—conflation of Ig and Merrin’s bygone splendor in the grass with the on-the-floor aftermath of one of Ig’s latter-day drunken all-nighters.
Both novel and film are obsessed with simplistic notions of good and evil, and neither recovers from the obligatory outlining of the elusive whodunit, yet Hill’s view of his characters’ wants and foibles are more well-rounded. In the novel, the waitress who surfaces as a witness against Ig is driven both by a thirst for fame and, more interestingly, a scarily nebulous sense of moral indignation, yet Aja imagines her only as a shrieking fame-monger (a stereotype that Heather Graham happily overplays). Worse, the Ig and Merrin of Hill’s imagination seem to have their eyes set on a world beyond the New Hampshire burb they call home, whereas the film has them dreaming of nothing more than the subsistence of their puppy-dog love affair, with Merrin herself seen as little more than a floozy with a cross around her neck.
That cross, which grants anyone who wears it immunity from Ig’s newfound powers of foresight, is the engine that propels some of the story’s more audacious set pieces, but if Hill understands it as a symbol of Merrin’s struggle with agency, Aja only sees it as a device—a means to unlocking the mystery of the girl’s death. For a story so unconventional, it’s executed without Aja’s typical commitment to anarchic awe. He may delight in rendering the truth-serum-like effects that Ig’s horns have on his tormentors, but the canned storybook romanticization of Ig and Merrin’s past rubs atonally against the realist depiction of place and the more cartoonish depictions of human depravity and supernatural vengeance. Which is to say that, just as Ig is stuck between good and evil, Aja is trapped gutlessly and uncomfortably between the grimy nihilism of Haute Tension and the satiric perversity of Piranha 3D.