Head Count Movie Review

Written by Ilan Sheady

Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films

Directed by Elle Callahan
Written by Elle Callahan and Michael Nader
2018, 90 minutes, Not Rated
Released on June 14th, 2019

Isaac Jay as Evan
Ashleigh Morghan as Zoe
Bevin Bru as Camille
Tory Freeth as Tori
Michael Herman as Sam
Sam Marra as Bryan

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Evan (Isaac Jay) and his brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe) had planned a bonding weekend exploring the exquisite natural sights of The Mojave Desert, but after they cross paths with Zoe (Ashleigh Morgan) and her group of, questionably, more entertaining friends, Evan chooses to ditch his brother for a night of sex, drugs and ghost stories.

That night, using a quick Google search, Alex reads aloud a creepy article about the Hisji, a malevolent shapeshifter that is summoned when you call its name five times and, in doing so, he invites something terrifying into the party.

It’s nearly impossible to create a fresh new horror around saying a name multiple times without drawing comparisons to Urban Legends like Bloody Mary and Clive Barker’s Candyman, however the unexpected brilliance of Head Count is that it is such a unique and tension-building experience that it appears more in line with genre changing masterpieces like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Director Elle Callahan masterfully places us both in the shoes of outsider Evan and as ourselves, a silent, socially awkward spectator watching the events unfold around the group. Characters are deliberately vague with introductions being a quick-fire assault of names and very little differentiation between personalities. You are intentionally made to struggle remembering who is who, just as much as Evan does, despite his only interest being ‘getting into Zoe’s pants’.

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As with 2014's It Follows, Callahan makes the camera both the eyes of the viewer and your enemy as you constantly strain to see things in the background or what’s happening to the left or to the right of the screen. As the silent observer you are never fully in sight of everyone or everything happening in the room and, similar to The Thing, you don’t know who to trust any more. This bountiful combination of tension and dramatic irony is the biggest asset to Head Count. This means while you are watching shit lunging threateningly towards the fan, everyone else is stumbling around, hungover, doubting their own mind. You sit there as the (presumably) sober witness waiting for something to happen, feeling the build up that never truly lets up until way beyond the conclusion.

But don’t assume that Head Count is a one trick pony. Exceptional levels of competency surround the production. Filming is primarily around the Mojave desert, a vastly beautiful or infinitely terrifying location depending on the context, but it takes talent to film it to look its best and cinematography (Sean Bagley) is something that Head Count has in abundance. Once we are out of the desert and in the safe confines of the rental home, set design goes out of its way to give you something for your eyes to explore. Hannah Parrot's music is used to perfection, being both an accent to some scenes and almost invisible fingers on the back of your neck in others.

Replay value is also a great and often forgotten bonus. As you are lead through the film and revelations are made, you start to think back to scenes, moments and set pieces that once may have felt insignificant suddenly becoming meaningful, but are never fully spelt out to you. It makes going back to watch again, fully alert, all the more rewarding.

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In the search for criticism, performances do feel inconsistent. Some conversations come across as improvised and very natural while key scripted points stand out like a throbbing thumb teetering on amateurish. The flirtations between the two leads, however, is perfect in its awkwardness and credit has to be given to the writing of Camille and performance of actress Bevin Bru – who is such a realistic human being that I could be easily convinced that she wasn’t aware that she was in a film. Meanwhile characters like Max (Billy Meade) revert to tropes like needlessly aggressive ex-boyfriend and Nico (Hunter Peterson) establishes himself as ‘the funny one”. The appearance of these clichés pulls you into mundane slasher genre territory, lowering your expectations so that even the flaws manage to work in Head Count’s favour.

All the flaws apart from one.

Special effects.

There are about eight seconds of footage that have the potential to quash all of the fear and tension that the entire movie successfully builds up. When you watch Head Count you will know exactly what that is, but despite approximately eight seconds of footage that I’d have sooner not seen, it doesn’t prevent the movie as a whole from being an impactful experience.

Despite being a phenomenal movie, Head Count won’t be to everyone’s liking. The same people who consider Get Out ‘not a horror’ or It Follows or The Babadook ‘boring’ will throw this film on the pyre with them. Deaths are almost exclusively off screen and left to your imagination. But for those that consider those titles to be modern masterpieces, they will likely consider placing Head Count alongside them.

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Movie: 4.5 Star Rating Cover

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