Head Count takes a fairly simple premise and manages to elevate it into something far greater than its limited production budget would seemingly allow.
At first glance Head Count has a fairly simplistic premise.
Evan (Isaac Jay) is a twenty-something College student visiting his older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe) at Joshua Park National Park. There’s a vibe between the brothers – a way of sniping at each other – that bespeaks some kind of falling out as a result of their upbringing; it helps to create an uneasy tension early in the film that helps to set the tone.
While out on a walk, Evan catches the attention of Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a girl in a nearby group of partying friends. Against his brother’s wishes, Evan joins them, even going so far as to abandon his sibling to accompany the group back to their 70s-era cottage on the edge of the desert. Even at this early stage, it’s unclear where writer Michael Nader and director Elle Callahan are going – there’s clearly something afoot, but it is uncertain if Evan is in danger from this group of strangers or if there is something else lurking on the periphery.
Over drinks at the campfire that night, the group begins to tell ghost stories and, in an effort to fit in, Evan pulls up a random website to read. The poem, which references a “vengeful” creature called the Hisji, is laughed off, but the lyrical quality of the words (a replication of the text that opens the film) hints at something otherworldly. Something has been invoked.
Head Count could have been a generic and familiar supernatural horror, but writer Michael Nader and director Elle Callahan do an exceptional job of fleshing out the main characters and crafting smart, unsettling scares.
With the addition of Evan, the number of people at the cottage number ten (this is important) and while roughly six of them never amount to anything, Evan, his love interest Zoe, her bubbly best friend Camille (Bevin Bru) and Zoe’s jealous ex-boyfriend Max (Billy Meade) are fully realized and identifiable types. Their interpersonal drama – both friendship and romantic – offers a compelling backdrop to the more sinister events.
Where Head Count truly excels, however, is the savvy way that Callahan crafts the scares. According to the rules outlined in the summoning spell, the Hikji can assume different forms and its infiltration of the group makes for a good amount of questioning and uncertainty. In one of the film’s strongest set pieces, Callahan slowly pans back and forth along a 180 degree axis as half of the group playing cards. The pacing is obviously deliberate, which is all the more deliberate as Callahan decreases the range of the camera’s visual path to include fewer and fewer people. The result is akin to a countdown, but a countdown to what? The payoff is shocking, startling and incredibly effective; it’s also an extremely savvy visual scare that doesn’t require extensive or expensive effects to accomplish.
The same smart filmmaking, coupled with striking desert lighting and the unusually memorable set-decoration of the cottage, all comes to a head in a mind-tripping climax. Head Count is a fun, brisk and suitably mean film that confirms Callahan as a director to watch.
Head Count is in select theatres, as well as digital and on demand now.