Elle Callahan’s Head Count is a supernatural thriller that dips into occult territory and folklore. The threat in question is a fake mythological creature called a Hisji that shape-shifts into the form of someone else when there are five people around. It is a vengeful, malevolent creature that will possess the bodies of those in its path and coerce each one to commit suicide. This is all we as the audience know about the creature, and it is foretold to us in an opening text poem that aims to spook us like the type of refrains repeated in The Babadook or Candyman.
I’ve read comparisons to The Thing and It Follows for Head Count, but they only apply thematically. Head Count seems bereft of the same ingenuity as those films and operates more on familiar tropes and anticlimactic thrills that render the overall product forgettable.
Taking place in a remote house in Joshua Tree, the film clearly vies for psychological scares as the Hisji slowly and subtly starts freaking out and raising suspicions among the house guests. Now, I love a slow burn to the scares as much as any horror-film viewer, but the freaky stuff is too few and far between. Worse still, Head Count operates on conventions of psychological thrillers and horror films but doesn’t gain traction as either; in other words, you’ve seen multiple movies like this one, so it relies on what you know from those flicks to fill in the blanks here.
The film begins with collegiate protagonist Evan (Isaac Jay) dropping his friends off at LAX for spring break. He’s disappointed to not be joining them; instead, he is headed to Joshua Tree to visit his off-the-grid, spiritually enlightened brother, Peyton (Cooper Rowe), and stay with him in his shabby trailer. It’s never clear why Evan doesn’t have the option to join his friends, but presumably he goes to dutifully build on the existing bond he has with Peyton, as he is his only living relative left since their mother and father passed away years ago. While on a hike, they meet a group of friends vacationing in a remote Airbnb—among them pretty photographer Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), who catches Evan’s eye. The group invites the brothers to a party at their rented hub, but only Evan wants to join, so he ditches Peyton to hang out with the gang in hopes of hooking up with Zoe.
The vacationers later revel in telling ghost stories late at night around a campfire. Evan gets a turn, and after scouring Anonymous Nightmares, a Creepypasta-type website of amateur horror stories, he comes across the poem about the Hisji. Reading aloud the poem and saying its name five times, he inadvertently conjures up the creature and sets it loose on the partiers.
Some positive things of note: The sound design is phenomenal, and along with the unblinking camera, that provides a genuine sense of unease; the familiar is made unfamiliar and the serene is made to seem creepy. Visual tricks, whenever they occur, play really well and drum up frightful tension. The film is also well-cast: Jay holds his own as the straight man sensing the dangers first and trying to save everyone from it (we even get the typical researching-the-creature-online-and-discovering-a-lost-case-file scene). Morghan has a wonderful presence, so it would have been great if she were as involved with the saving as Jay.
What was frustrating about Head Count was not knowing what it aimed to be. Or rather, it knows what it aims to be, but the film thinks it’s more clever than it is by flirting with genre conventions to buck viewer expectations. The group dynamic is never fully explored beyond knowing who’s dating who and noting the archetypal characters you’re likely acquainted with in slasher films: the dominant jock who huffs at superstition, the sexually uninhibited bestie, the comic relief/druggie. Some characters will never speak a line, so their eventual demise is met with a shrug.
As a directorial debut, Head Count feels extremely flat, though Callahan (who co-wrote the film with Michael Nader) is definitely adept at crafting atmosphere and mood. But a viewer can only sit through atmosphere and mood for so long during a 90-minute film. Feel free to check out early.
Head Count was directed by Elle Callahan; written by Elle Callahan and Michael Nader; and stars Isaac Jay, Ashleigh Morghan and Bevin Bru.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.