Genre : Horror-Thriller
Rating : Unrated
Director: Elle Callahan
With summer break just beginning a reluctant Evan (Isaac Jay) heads to Joshua Tree to spend the weekend with his estranged brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe). Meeting a group of other twenty-somthings he captures the eye of photographer Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan). With sparks beginning to fly between the two Evan accepts an invitation to party with Zoe and her friends, leaving Peyton behind. As the night wears on and the drinks continue to flow they all settle around a fire and tell scary stories around a campfire. Without a story of his own Evan goes online and finds a poem entitled Hisji. As he reads it to his new friends he accidentally unleashes a deadly being unlike anything he could ever dream of.
The latest in the quickly growing Creepypasta-based movie subgenre writer-director Elle Callahan deviates from the norm by creating her own urban legend. A mix of The Babadook and The Thing, the Hisji is a humanoid that can shape shift and look like other people. Slowly infiltrating groups of five it ritualistically stalks them before forcing them to commit suicide. Callahan and co-writer Michael Nader give audiences just enough of the Hisji’s lore to keep audiences hooked. A similar level of care can be seen behind the camera.
Stylishly capturing the desolate California desert in her feature debut Elle Callahan shows a technical skill that belies her time behind the camera. Despite Head Count‘s limited budget Callahan is able to deliver some blockbuster scares with things as simple as camera tricks or gradually building tension to its breaking point. She possesses the kind of skills that lull audiences into a false sense of security from a drunken game of Never Have I Ever and turn it into one of the best jump scares of the year. It’s a talent doesn’t necessarily extend to other aspects of the film.
As interesting as Head Count can be on a technical level it stumbles as an actual story. Although performed well by Isaac Jay, Evan can feel unbearable at times. Either afraid or angst-ridden for the majority of Head Count the only time Evan shows any real life is when he is with Zoe. Portrayed by Ashleigh Morghan (Snowfall, The Land) she is able to bring a cheeriness out of Evan that is sorely missing most of the movie. The second-too-long stares, the awkwardness around your significant other’s friends, Jay and Morghan do a marvelous job capturing the awkward yet magical feeling you get when you fall for someone. The same can’t be said of the rest of the supporting cast. For the most part Zoe’s posse, while well performed, come off as beyond cliché. Whether it’s the alpha male Max or the constantly stoned Nico they feel more like Degrassi extras than actual characters.
The other thing holding Head Count back is the film’s lack of budget. Not to say you necessarily need Avengers money to make a good film but Head Count clearly had some pretty big ambitions for its third act. After meticulously crafting a creeping, subtle terror it rushes as fast as it can to the finish line leaving as much chaos in its wake as it can muster. Culminating with a less than impressive CG Hisji it feels out of place in a movie that felt so deliberate in its choices before. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the film but it makes for a jarring change of pace.
As a film, Head Count is a step above most of its contemporaries. With an intriguing lore for the Hisji and a skillful hand behind the scenes, Elle Callahan’s first feature shows that the director has a lot of potential. So does that make Head Count a good movie? Not quite. Despite being good on a technical level an indie level budget, paper thin characters and a too predictable sequel hook hurt the film to outright recommend. But if it’s any indication of Callahan’s future then her next film Witch Hunt, now in pre-production, should be one to look out for. Just don’t go in a group of five.
Links : IMDB
Head Count is now on VOD and in select theaters