After one glimpse, the title to Daniel Radcliffe’s newest movie requires no further explanation. But there’s so much more to unwrap in Horns, Alexandre Aja’s subversely funny adaptation of Joe Hill’s macabre mystery novel. Yes, Harry Potter grows horns after his angelic girlfriend (Juno Temple) is brutally murdered and he’s the only suspect. In defense of the town’s quick rush to judgment, there are also scenes where a singed Radcliffe wields a pitchfork and communes with menacing snakes. (Once a parseltongue, always a parseltongue.) Also, he drives a flaming-orange Gremlin, so can you really blame the simple townsfolk for thinking he’s tight with Satan?

Horns, which premiered last night at the Toronto Film Festival, is something totally different and unexpected. Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, who finds that those grotesque horns suddenly growing out of his head have one useful side effect. Rather than being frightened or disgusted, other people are oddly put at ease by the sight of them and compulsively express their deepest and darkest secrets and desires to Ig. There’s the local floozy who really wants to eat all the donuts after sex, the buddy-cops who want to take their relationship to the next level, and Ig’s mother, who just wants him to disappear because his plight makes her so darn sad. “I bring out the worst in people,” Ig laments. But once he begins to understand the blessing that accompanies his curse, he sets out to use his power to find the real killer.

The movie is extremely funny and clever — the opening line is, “Are you horny?” — the heart of the story is the first-love romance, but it’s still very much an Aja film, with dark elements that will have you squirming in your seat. (A note: Indiana Jones would not be able to sit through this movie. “Snakes… Why did it have to be snakes?” You’ve been warned.)

“[I love] whenever you find a script or a book that is so hard to pin down into one genre,” Radcliffe said during the Q&A after the screening. “The first third of this film is incredibly funny and then it has this love story, which to me is the most important part of it. I think to have all these ideas held within this incredibly original way, while also encapsulating huge amounts of religious mythology, which I’m kind of in to, it was just very exciting and different.”

Hill, who bounced down from a nose-bleed seat in the balcony — Hollywood power-pyramid personified! — to the post-screening Q+A, called it a “tragicomic-horridy,” and that’s as good a description as any. “People used to make movies with different moods,” said the author, who isn’t even the best-known best-selling author in his family. (His father is a guy named Stephen King.) “A lot of films know how to play one note, over and over again. But there used to be filmmakers like George Roy Hill, who did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was exciting and funny and romantic and tragic. I just think there’s room in life for all those things and it’s kind of disappointing when a film only captures one of those things: just the scary stuff or just the romantic stuff. I’m greedy and I kind of want it all. And I think Alex did a great job of capturing that.”

Hill joked to Aja that the director was really drawn to his book’s “dirty parts” — of which there are several, including a Temple/Radcliffe sex scene — but the filmmaker behind movies like The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D responded that those naughty bits weren’t the real appeal. “It’s a true fable about first love and revenge and everything we are and sometimes things we don’t want to admit that we are,” he said.

But let’s be honest, it’s the horns, isn’t it? Even Hill doesn’t mind admitting it. “I was so excited I had [the makeup department] put them on me,” he said. “I walked around with the horns for about 10 hours and people do get used to it. I was always hoping we could butt heads like rams.”

Radcliffe chuckled. Hill shrugged, “Another time then.”

Horns, which is being shopped to U.S. distributors, is screening in Toronto this week.

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  • 120 minutes