THE HEAD HUNTER opens with a shot of the hunter’s head (Christopher Rygh) in close-up as if the camera is peering deep into his mind. He’s a big Viking looking man, with long hair, a beard, and fierce weapons. It’s winter, in what appears to be an alternative 12th-century timeline, and there are monsters lurking in the woods. The fantasy-horror film, directed by wunderkind Jordan Downey, is a grim story about an isolated warrior hunting monsters in the forest.
It made me think about birds that steal eggs from sister nests or mother monkeys who kill rival monkey babies or snakes that eat each other: Nature is Vile. It also made me think about how terrifying our ‘civilized’ world actually is – I read a fair amount of true crime, and if I had children, I’d be too scared to let them out of my sight. I know far too much about what happens to innocent people who wander too far from the trail. Like the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, there are monsters in the forest, real monsters.
In the film, the head hunter is the medieval equivalent to the FBI’s mindhunters, detectives who hunt serial killers in the modern world. A mindhunter who catches the villain might display his achievement by writing a book about the case. In this world, the hunter collects the heads of monsters in a small, wooden hut. He nails their heads to the wall with wooden spikes, driving it through their brains. It’s pure monster gore but what’s the premise? Watch out for monsters, they’re everywhere.
There are all types of monsters in the forests: Trolls, yetis, nasty creatures without names, and one retro monster, that may or may not be hunting the head hunter; which reminded me of Manhunter, for when the lead detective is hunting the killer, the killer is actually hunting him. In Manhunter, the detective is almost driven mad from his pursuit but he ends up capturing the serial killer.
In THE HEAD HUNTER, the monsters are real and yet, they’re a metaphor for real-life monsters: narcissists, sociopaths, con-artists, back-stabbers, attention-getters, trolls, hypocrites, jealous haters, users, and takers, you name it. But that’s to be expected, life is hard and it’s filled with pitfalls, challenges and nasty things in the dark. But don’t fret, if life is a simulated video game then it’s meant to be difficult and the monsters out there are designed to test your strengths.
The screenplay, which has few lines of dialogue, is told visually. The low-budget film is a triumph of production design, it looks like a Game of Thrones spin-off, which is quite a feat for the production team. The director, who both edited the film and co-wrote the screenplay, has made an inspiring piece with incredible cinematography. The film is filled with shots of the winter woods – trees, rivers, horses, and the heads of ugly monsters, erected on pikes. But there’s also beautiful drone shots of the eastern side of the Sierras, which look like the aerial footage of a glorious, medieval world.
There’s a lot of talk online right now about whether or not lines are important in film, referring to Anna Paquin’s character in The Irishman. It’s important to feature diversity and let women TALK FOR GOD’S SAKE so let’s give them SOMETHING MEATY to say. But sometimes, a great role is nearly silent – like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird or Samantha Morton’s Hattie in Sweet and Lowdown. Likewise, THE HEAD HUNTER is a quiet film and yet it’s effective; who needs wordy character development, when you can show the warrior sleeping sitting up in a chair because he’s too scared to sleep on the ground, like a normal person?
Downey, who directed the super fun ThanksKilling, a horror-comedy for under $3500, was able to make THE HEAD HUNTER for a reported $30,000, which is pretty amazing. Aspiring indie directors should watch it for that principal alone, but also because it’s a grim story about a monster hunter fighting evil in the woods. THE HEAD HUNTER premieres on Shudder exclusively, starting on December 5th, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.