HEAD COUNT – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Although the debut feature film of filmmaker Elle Callahan, Head Count is far from the work of a newcomer. Having worked in various post production capacities on blockbusters such as Avengers 2, Antman, The BFG and Wonder Woman, Callahan got hands-on experience with horror feature filmmaking specifically as an editorial assistant for the gleefully silly Toni Collette-fronted Krampus in 2015. A graduate of USC’s Film & Television Production program, she also has extensive experience as a sound designer, yet another skill that she brought to Head Count, which she not only directed but also received a co-writer and executive producer credit.

In a directorial capacity, Head Count largely continues Callahan’s interest in horror that began with her debut short Happy Deathday in 2009 (not to be confused with the later 2017 horror film, Happy Death Day or its extraordinary recent sequel, Happy Death Day 2U). Following a group of young people vacationing at Joshua Tree, the planned drugs-and-alcohol fueled bacchanalia takes a turn for the worse when an evening telling ghost stories unleashes a bloodthirsty monster with the ability to take the physical form of members of the group themselves. Combining the body-count structure of the teen slasher film with the uncanny spookiness of the both the doppelganger and shape-shifter horror traditions, despite its many movie parts Head Count comes together neatly, providing a fun genre ride.

The mythology at the core of the film is an invention of Callahan’s own, a vengeance monster called a “Hisji” who – as the film’s opening title card tells us – is evoked through the evocation of his name. While recalling folkloric traditions like Bloody Mary, the Hisji perhaps most immediately provokes associations with Tony Todd’s iconic horror urban legend monster in Candyman, who like the Hisji appears after you say its name five times specifically.

Yet while Candyman focuses on issues such as race, urban poverty and gender politics on a grander scale than Head Count, the latter has its own thematic sites of interest it seeks to unpack. Raising questions about deceptive identities, trust and loyalty, and the virality of paranoia, the film follows protagonist Evan (Isaac Jay) who while supposedly leaving L.A. to visit his dippy brother Hayden (Cooper Rowe) bails almost immediately to stay with a group of partying kids his same age, largely due to an almost instant mutual attraction between himself and Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan).

It is Evan who half-heartedly reads out the Hisji legend from a website he finds on his phone when pressured to join in the sharing of ghost stories as he sits with his new friends around the campfire. Yet not all are exactly friends; class issues are clearly a factor (especially between Zoe’s rich city-slicker male friends and their arrogant dismissal and mistrust of ‘hillbilly’ Hayden, and by association Evan himself). Their broad failure to take Evan seriously when he shares his early suspicions that something is supernaturally afoot in large part leads to the carnage that follows in a series of horror vignettes that make up the bulk of the film’s genre-oriented visual spectacle.

Head Count might not exactly reinvent the horror movie wheel, but in its defense, it has no real interest in doing so. Rather, its strengths lie in the interplay between the teens themselves, particularly Callahan’s leads Morghan and Jay. There’s a lovely sense of verisimilitude to the awkwardness of the courting young couple; they’re from the cliché of aggressively horny teens so commonly associated with horror, but at the same time they are also not shy about their attraction. On this front, the film is notably pro-sex.

Like a lot of low-budget horror, the impact of Head Count’s horror scenes might be felt to be a little weakened by some unnecessary CGI, especially given the old Val Lewton rule of thumb that ‘not showing’ in horror can be more effective than letting the audience ‘see’ the monster. The really disturbing images in the film are not the creature itself, but the radical monstrosity that manifests in these otherwise normal kids when the Hisji takes on their form, committing acts of violence – or, more specifically, making the others commit acts of violence on themselves – that at times are deeply distressing (one wrist slashing scene in particular carries more impact than all the CGI ‘reveals’ of the monsters true form combined).

Callahan’s debut feature reveals genuine promise in the genre for this emerging filmmaker, and we can only hope to see more from her as her skills and creative instinct develop even further. Head Count is a fun horror movie that reveals the potential duplicity and capacity for evil in all of us, a light-hearted genre romp destined to please those amongst us with a soft spot for low-budget indie horror filmmaking.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.