I will say this outright. HEAD COUNT is a chilling mind fuck of a movie. However, I will issue an extreme trigger warning for suicide. If it is something that is bad for you, this review is not for you.
HEAD COUNT is directed by Elle Callahan, the story is by Callahan and co-written by Michael Nader. It has an appealing cast headed by Issac Jay, Flock of Four, as Evan and Ashleigh Morghan, Snowfall, as Zoe, Bevin Bru as Camille, Tory Freeth as Tori, Hunter Peterson as Nico, Amaka Obiechie as Haley, Michael Herman as Sam, Chelcie May as Vanessa, Sam Marra as Bryan, Cooper Rowe as Payton, and Billy Meade in a disagreeable turn as Max. It is good that he is disagreeable. Bevin Bru, Cooper Rowe, and Michael Herman in particular have natural charisma that is used to great effect to enhance the characters and story.
Right away, I have to give the director, Elle Callahan and her casting director, credit for casting this film so well. While there are a few moments that didn’t work for me performance wise, overall the casting is spot on and the actors give you people, flawed people, to care for and who draw you into the story. No one is an shining hero and no one is a completely unlikable jerk, they are just people in an increasingly bizarre and difficult situation who slowly come to realize how bad things really are.
Elle Callahan has also made a brightly sunlit horror film that gradually reveals the danger that has come to the party house in Joshua Tree. Part of what works so well about the film is that very little of the run time is actually in the dark and sun blasted and lonely vistas of Joshua Tree give it a place as a horror film with a really different kind of framing. The dark is always a friend to the horror film maker and too many lean on our fears of the dark to make their job easier. Horror in the broad daylight and in plain sight is an admirable feat and has a real level of difficulty that challenges both the film makers and the viewers. Joshua Tree is a great setting and in the film is kind of a passive character that emphasizes the remoteness of the friends and also the existential concept that the world, and by the extension – the Universe, as indifferent to our suffering and fear as human beings. It is a concept that does not get enough use in our genre.
The adversary and the existential slasher killer of the film is the HISJI. Another really good thing about the film is that it doesn’t belabor the Internet Urban legend source of the HISJI. The introduction is almost a throwaway moment. You know it is there. The film states everything upfront and then slowly reintroduces the pieces to unnerving effect. HEAD COUNT is most effective when it wields the unknown and subtlety in plot and set pieces. It let me down slightly when it shows a/the HISJI in corporeal form. I imagine they felt they needed to because so much of the horror is in the imagination, but I didn’t think it was necessary and that it was a sop to those who need to see everything or have things explained to them.
As for the issue of how the HISJI kills, it is a very upsetting issue and the film mostly walks the line between good and bad taste fairly well. Like the issue of showing the monster, my only other disappointment was when some of the suicide methods were shown or underlined. This might be a personal issue of mine, but since suicide is something very serious in our society and something that effects many of us, particularly this year, I do have to mention it. I do not believe that it is used in an exploitative or irresponsible way. The idea is that a/the HISJI induces people, through mind games and doppelgänger ability to commit suicide. For the most part and most frighteningly, the suicides are not shown. When they are, there is also a shot of a noose, it did not sit right with me. I believe that the film makers original choice to avoid showing most of it was the correct one and the best use of the unknown.
HEAD COUNT is a really good and genuinely scary horror film that is light on gore, but not light on thrills. An existential slasher killer stalking a crew of friends with the new guy unleashing horror on them all inadvertently makes for a risk taking and adventurous entry into the horror genre that I can recommend highly. Horror with a mostly light touch that shows Elle Callahan as a new and exciting talent as a director with a very promising future in the genre or any other subject she chooses to tackle.