Horror flick Head Count has been making the festival rounds since last September; this week it finally hits theaters courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films. I recently had the chance to catch it at Overlook Film Festival and was glad it wasn’t one I ultimately decided to skip in lieu of exploring New Orleans because, for having nothing to do with Slenderman, it’s the Slenderman movie we should have gotten.
Evan (Issac Jay) is on break from classes and heads to Joshua Tree to crash with his just-high-on-life-man older bro, Peyton (Cooper Rowe). It’s soon clear the angsty Evan is less than thrilled about having to spend the weekend with his hippie brother. When they stumble across a group of teens while on a hike in the desert, Evan jumps at the chance to hang out with them. Sparks soon fly between him and Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan) and when the group invites Evan back to the house they’ve rented for the weekend, he takes them up on their offer and ditches his brother.
The weekend initially unfolds like any other you might expect from a group of teenagers-to-early-20-somethings: beer pong, psychedelics, binge drinking, and liver-destroying shenanigans ensue. As the first night winds down, the group gathers around the campfire to pass a bottle around and scare each other with ghost stories and urban legends pulled at random from Creepypasta stand-in AnonymousNightmares.com. Evan lands on a strange story titled “Hisji” that simply reads aloud as a slightly sinister poem, a nonsense incantation about what appears to be some creature. It’s quickly forgotten as alcohol continues to flow and the hot tub attracts attention.
Soon, tiny, unsettling things begin to occur around their party house and in the surrounding desert. Accidents happen with the victim having no memory of how they got from point A to point B; drunken double-takes as a friend spotted in one room suddenly appears in another at the same time; lights turn on by themselves and objects start arranging themselves in patterns of five. Yet, there are few overtly terrifying moments or jump scares in the first two acts which makes it all the more sinister.
That’s the beauty of Elle Callahan’s direction and script (co-written with Michael Nader). It’s all so very normal. What could possibly be dangerous about a drunken house party with friends, one full of red Solo cups and beer pong and weed (aside from the potential alcohol poisoning)? Underpinning that sense of normalcy is the chemistry between the rather large cast of eminently relatable characters: Everyone knew or knows someone like Nico (Hunter Peterson), the screw-up who can always be counted to have drugs on him or to espouse the health benefits of shrooms. Everyone knows an impatient a-hole like Max (Billy Meade), the guy who “just tells it like it is.” Camille (Bevin Bru) is the bubbly bestie free spirit who just wants everyone to have a good time. The quips and shit-talking that fly freely through the group of ten have the familiar feel of burns tossed off by friends that know each other so well they can freely dunk on one another without fear of repercussion. While not every character is fleshed out, the crew is real and relatable enough to make their ignorance of the demonic entity in their midst all the more stressful.
It’s clear to the viewer something malevolent is stalking the group but it’s revealed subtly and in the background. Mounting tension is generated not by watching the partiers escape the terrible thing in their midst, but by them not even realizing there’s a terrible thing in their midst at all. We are part of the dramatic irony, fully aware something is deeply, drastically wrong but compelled to sit and watch while the characters continue to be oblivious to the danger. Tantalizingly frustrating are the moments when a character gets so close to noticing something is amiss, but then dismisses it as the effects of the alcohol fogging their head, the edibles in their blood. Evan is the only one who senses something is off, but being the new guy and navigating the fraught dynamics of a group of tight-knit friends with hook-up history is difficult and his fears are treated by the others with all the seriousness of Chicken Little.
One particularly memorable scene involves a drunken game of Never Have I Ever. As the camera rotates back and forth around the table while the friends trade revelations and laughs and shots, it’s all so mundane and relatable (who hasn’t played a game of Truth or Dare or Never Have I Ever while sloshed?) that it’s enough to lull you into a false sense of security – and that’s exactly why the jump scare that comes out of nowhere is so effective, mild and unthreatening as it is.
If I have one real criticism of Head Count, it’s that the third act payoff comes too late. Callahan does such a fine job of slowly ratcheting up the tension that she waits a little too long to pull the trigger on full-blown terror, resulting in a climax that feels rushed. But, oh, if the rest of the movie was subtle and grounded, once the Hisji’s full chaos is unleashed, chaotic madness quickly engulfs the group in ways that are gruesome and genuinely horrifying. There is a moment the Hisji is fully revealed that I wish had been cut from the movie; it would have worked just fine (and perhaps even better) had the entity never been shown, or shown in no more than glimpses. The creature design for the Hisji, while well-done, is stylistically incongruous to the rest of the film, feeling like it belongs in an alien invasion movie and not a Creepypasta homage. And perhaps that’s on me as the viewer, expecting one thing and being unsatisfied with another. But those criticisms are overall not enough to detract from Callahan’s extremely solid directorial feature debut – I’m now very intrigued by Witch Hunt, her next project in development.
Head Count is in some theaters this weekend. If it’s playing in your area, I fully recommend giving it a watch.
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