Do you really know the people around you? What if your friend, or lover, wasn’t who you though they were anymore? That’s the simple premise driving Elle Callahan’s indie thriller, Head Count. It’s a premise that highly-regarded thrillers have used in the past, including The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Though Callahan’s Head Count leans closer to Carpenter’s classic, she eschews gross-out horror for more subtle psychological chills. Now streaming on Netflix, critics have largely praised Callahan’s effort.
After dropping off college buddies for a holiday getaway, Evan reluctantly drives out to Joshua Tree, California, to visit estranged brother, Peyton. Living alone in a single trailer in the desert, Peyton is a recluse who shuns technology. During their ‘get in touch with nature’ hike, the brothers meet a group of young vacationers. Rather than spend more time with his brother, Evan opts to join this new group, which includes the cute and single Zoe. However, things take a strange turn over a campfire ghost story when Evan shares an Internet myth about the demonic ‘Hisji’. Soon thereafter, the partiers notice that something is among them. It can look any one of them, but it’s not one of them.
Head Count Burns Slowly Towards a Chilling Climax
In her feature-length directorial debut, Elle Callahan, who also shares writing credits with Michael Nader, opts for a slow burn approach. Head Count shares its pacing with ‘mumblegore’ movies like Ti West’s The Innkeepers. In terms of aesthetics, Callahan channels Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless. It’s a mix of styles that works quite well. For its opening 15 to 20 minutes or so, not much seems to happen, though I would encourage audiences to watch carefully. This is the kind of slow-burn thriller that weaves in crucial story points subtly here and there. In particular, Head Count’s opening frame potentially drops a big hint, depending on how one interprets the ending. But for a big chunk of the movie, the focus is on character and dialogue.
By its third act, Callahan quickly escalates things to a frenetic finale that ends as abruptly as it kicks into gear. At its conclusion, Head Count ends as quietly and ambiguously as it started.
Following the campfire ghost stories, Callahan begins to deliberately ratchet up the tension. With the ‘Hisji’s’ ominous presence implicitly established, Head Count slowly drops scares and reminders of the unknown threat. By its third act, Callahan quickly escalates things to a frenetic finale that ends as abruptly as it kicks into gear. At its conclusion, Head Count ends as quietly and ambiguously as it started. When Callahan is messing with your head, Head Count is an extremely unnerving thriller. However, some audiences will find the early pacing too slow. Additionally, the movie’s subtle payoff may be considered underwhelming. To some extent, Head Count is a little too ‘start and stop’ in the middle.
‘Never Have I Ever’ Delivers One of 2019’s Best Scares
While Head Count may build its scares too slowly for some, when Callahan brings the shocks, she does it quite well. In particular, Head Count’s ‘never have I ever’ scene delivers one of the year’s best scares. Yes, it will make you jump, but I wouldn’t classify it as traditional jump scare. To her credit, Callahan expertly sets the moment up, embedding it in what feels like a benign game among friends. It’s such a subtle scare that you may have to rewind a few seconds to figure out what you just saw.
Head Count also benefits from a screenplay that avoids lazy exposition.
Head Count also benefits from a screenplay that avoids lazy exposition. Following the tried and true horror formula that ‘less is more’, Callahan and Nader’s story only offers the slightest information about its ‘Hijsi”. Hints and clue are spread across the movie like breadcrumbs. Even as Evan puts together some of these clues for the audience, Head Count never tips its hand too much. Arguably, the thriller’s weaker moments crop up when Callahan shows a little too much of the movie’s monster. The shadowy reveal exposes the thriller’s budgetary limitations, but it’s fortunately just a quick moment.
A (Too) Full Slate of Unmemorable Characters
To fulfill the “Hsiji’s’ curse around the number ‘five’, Head Count packs in a lot of young characters. Given the movie’s 90 minute run-time, most of these characters are inevitably one-note stereotypes who you’ll struggle to remember. The ‘asshole’, the ‘joker’, the ‘girlfriend’ – Head Count doesn’t invest much into its characters. Even principal protagonist Evan feels underwritten, particularly his relationship with distant brother, Peyton. Something feels missing from the relationship, raising the question as to why it was included in the movie. Otherwise Evan is a difficult central character with whom to identify. To some extent, Head Count treats Evan somewhat unevenly – unlikable at times, sympathetic at others. With no other characters really standing out, some of Head Count’s effective chills are muted.
Head Count Equal Parts Frustrating, Intriguing
Overall, Head Count gets too many things right to dismiss. As a filmmaker, Elle Callahan shows a remarkable grasp of the genre in her feature-length debut. When Head Count is creepy, it gets under your skin. Conversely, Head Count struggles with the same problem experienced by many slow-burn thrillers – pacing. Some audiences will likely find the movie’s pacing in the first half to be too methodical. Nonetheless, Head Count’s ambiguous ending is the kind that will get into your head and leave you thinking. And that’s an accomplishment that deserves credit.