Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Elle Callahan
Writer: Michael Nadler, Elle Callahan
Producer: Samuel Sandweiss, Brandon Somerhalder
Stars: Isaac W. Jay, Ashley Morghan, Bevin Bru, Billy Meade, Hunter Peterson, Chelcie May, Tory Freeth, Michael Herman, Amaka Obiechie, Sam Marra, Cooper Rowe
Ten friends vacationing in the Joshua Tree desert inadvertently summon a supernatural entity capable of mimicking humans.
I unequivocally commend “Head Count” for exemplifying the kind of indie thriller I think first time feature filmmakers like Elle Callahan should tackle. “Head Count” bites off only what its budget can chew, yet never opens its mouth to show limited resources in a raw state.
The cast remains restricted only to those introduced at the outset, yet has enough people to not feel too contained. The same sentiment goes for the setting. Most of the movie is wrangled into a single location, but it comes with expansive exteriors that open up the environment so it doesn’t feel completely confined to one house.
In other words, “Head Count” doesn’t have the typically cheap texture of a “little Indians in the wilderness” slasher. The film smartly weaves logistical necessities into its story instead of allowing those necessities to dictate the fiction’s direction.
I have to be a little hypocritical however. As a critic who has seen small productions take similar setups down lazy paths countless times before, I absolutely appreciate Callahan and her crew’s plainly visible professional commitment. Yet from the perspective of a filmgoer to whom entertainment trumps behind-the-scenes effort, “Head Count” only earns a lukewarm thumbs up. The movie may make the right technical moves by being competently constructed, but it misses a distinctive x-factor to really make it memorable.
Mopey and milquetoast, Evan makes for a pretty plain protagonist. Already disappointed about not spending semester break with his friends, Evan appears even less enthused about spending time with his hippie-dippy brother Peyton at Peyton’s Manson Family-esque trailer in the Joshua Tree desert.
Things start looking up for Evan when the two brothers run into Zoe while hiking. Enjoying a holiday of her own with eight other friends, Zoe takes an interest in Evan that earns him an invite back to a remote house for a weekend of good times. Not wanting to stand in his way, Peyton gives baby brother his blessing and Evan goes off with the others.
Night one festivities naturally include beer and tequila shots, but also feature scary stories around a campfire. For his turn, Evan uses his phone to hit a creepypasta-like website and reads a tale titled “Hisji, Hisji, Hisji, Hisji, Hisji” out loud. “Hisji” turns out to be a poem concerning a shapeshifting entity that can be summoned by repeating its name five times. The friends laugh off “Hisji” as too cryptic to be interesting. Of course, no one yet knows that Evan inadvertently conjured the creature to complete an ancient blood ritual, and the hisji is capable of impersonating any one of them it wants.
Ordinarily, ten twentysomethings is at least four too many to stand out or keep track of in a 90-minute horror movie. “Head Count” not only earns a pass for its inflated cast by making their number an essential component of the entity’s agenda, but the movie more or less does an okay job of establishing everyone individually. They could be reductively identified as the goofy stoner, douchey a-hole, bohemian pixie, etc., although there is slightly more to their makeup than simple stereotypes.
Other than Max, no one reads as outright unlikable. Then again, no one is particularly endearing either, since all we ever see anyone doing is drinking, smoking, joking, or jeering. At worst, they merely echo Evan’s vanilla flavor.
The hisji on the other hand, has much more going on. Here again however, “Head Count” backs itself into another damned if you do, damned if you don’t jam.
The creature has a fairly cool mythology. It’s only developed as much as it needs to be. Still, the weird poem brings out a bit of “The Babadook” (review here) while particulars about its unsettling abilities cursing victims to commit suicide give the hisji more than enough frightful flair.
At issue are details that make the hisji a monster unlikely to be carried outside of the movie. What I mean by that is that first off, someone has to actively summon the hisji by saying its name five times. Sure, you have to do the same to conjure Candyman or Bloody Mary too. But because the hisji is specifically drawn to groups of five, it’s not the kind of imaginary entity like Freddy Krueger or another boogeyman who is likely to haunt your psyche when you lay down to sleep alone. By being so exclusive to a certain situation, the hisji misses out on instilling universally transmutable fear.
The creature takes another hit from a slightly silly design that undercuts its visual viciousness. Maybe giving it Gollum eyes wasn’t the best way to go.
As a paranoid mystery, “Head Count” doesn’t get anywhere near as frenzied as it could with its “who is and who isn’t a duplicate?” potential. Increased intensity would add more enticing energy, yet the film largely settles for slow atmospheric smolder instead.
Essentially, “Head Count” works well as a worthy one-time watch. It’s a film that almost gets all the way around the hump of basic chills, but needs a more forceful personality to push it over the edge of being average, and further into the realm of being bold.
Review Score: 60