In over the hundred and twenty three years since the first filmed horror story, it is still one of cinema’s most enduring genres. The question these days is not so much what the story is that the film is telling but how that story is being told. Is it a gore fest or a bombardment of jump scares? is it cerebral or is it visceral? is there a deep meaning or is it just thrills and chills? and can it be all of the above?
Anyone who has watched a lot of horror will mostly know what to be in for once a story starts and so doing something different, especially as a first time director, can be a challenge and a risk. Often the successes come from delivering something established but in a new, expert and exciting way but choosing to follow your own speed and style, to establish your own cinematic voice can be fraught with problems if you are not confident and definite in your skill.
Luckily, for her feature debut, director Elle Callahan appears to be chock full of confidence in her style and skill. She knows she wants to keep the pace slower, to play with sound and score and to create a rising sense of dread and unease through camera tricks, unnerving cuts and simple but effective performance.
Head Count’s plot is essentially the old chestnut of - young adults go on vacation to house in the middle of nowhere with the plan of drinking, doing drugs and hooking up and then unwittingly unleash a malevolent and evil spirit. The change here is that this isn’t a cabin in the spooky woods and the evil spirit is not raised from an incantation in a scary flesh bound book or a renowned urban legend where some stupid teens dare each other to say the name of something a few times in a mirror, it’s a blog post on a ghost story website and no one is behaving idiotically when the group of kids take it in turns to read out stories from the website, around a campfire, at their Arizona house rental in the desert.
The other change is that the movie doesn’t quickly descend into gory, supernatural violence or CGI heavy monster attacks but rather continues naturalistically with the small, scary details here and there, if you want to notice them.
It is in this tension building and the, almost, dream like pacing where Head Count is successful. It’s a bold move to make almost an entire movie about the build up and not the confrontation. The cast are perfectly fine and realistic, with no real stand outs, good or bad, Hannah Parrott’s eerie score is wonderfully deployed at the right times to jolt and unnerve and Elle Callahan’s direction is assured and filled with pleasing ideas, especially when it comes to the combination of sound and shots.
The film, like all of this kind, falls prey to sometimes obvious and obnoxious writing for its young protagonists. Maybe it’s the grumpy old man in me but my tolerance for people talking about getting high or alpha males insecurely and rudely attacking the newcomer to assert dominance and because of a woman, is pretty low. This is not to say the script is all like this, it isn’t, and I recognise this as a trope but just once it would be great to see a group of friends who didn’t have the wacky druggie one, the obnoxious alpha, the hip girl who’s into photography etc. However when you have 10 main characters and are working within a genre, it’s not surprising to see these cliches creep in.
The other slight issue with the film is that, while I do praise the tense build-up, films do need some sort of a payoff, especially horror films and Head Count feels like it rushes its payoff. Considering the talent there clearly is in the cast and crew, it would’ve been nice for a third act with a little more twists, meaning, action, character moments and more. The film seems to purposely not do any of those things, the camera even leaves the the house, where the shit is hitting the fan, and hovering outside instead for us to hear but never see the destruction and excitement within. Yes this is a clever use of budget and a desire not to get into special effects it might not be able to pull off totally successfully and it’s also a clever subversion of our expectations, but the low key payoff and twist it settles on leaves way more questions than it answers.
Maybe that’s the point?
As an audience member this leaves you with a feeling of “well what was the point in that then?” If it was the pilot of a series or part one of a trilogy, you would know there was more to come, as a stand alone it doesn’t quite pull off the ending it thinks it does.
All that being said, Head Count is an interesting, different first effort from Elle Callahan with excellent cinematography, expert editing, a solid and diverse cast and it makes Callahan definitely a Director to keep your eyes on.
HEAD COUNT is in theaters and on digital and On Demand June 14, 2019