In theaters and available On Demand and Digital on Friday, June 14th, 2019, Head Count is a cautionary tale as to why you shouldn’t read aloud mysterious chants found on the internet. Originally premiering at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival, and picked up for distribution by Samuel Holdwyn Films, the directorial debut from Elle Callahan (Happy Deathday 2009) follows a group of teens on a getaway in Joshua Tree that unknowingly unleashes a shape-shifting entity with an obsession with the number five and deadly rituals.
On a break from college, Evan (Isaac Jay: Flock of Four 2017, See You Later 2018) reluctantly decides to spend his summer with his eccentric brother, Peyton (Cooper Rowe: Glee series, Talia in the Kitchen series) in the California desert. Peyton, a self-proclaimed free spirit, lives a very simplistic lifestyle where he chooses to screen calls in favor of medicating in his small, disorganized trailer and become one with nature. To his dismay, Evan joins him on his nature hikes for some bonding time when they run into a group of teens out enjoying the earth in their own – more recreational – way. Evan quickly trades in quality brotherly bonding for a cute photographer named Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan: Native Son 2019, The Last Summer 2019) and decides to join them at their Air BnB.
Like typical teen Horror films before, a night of tequila shots and drinking games leads to everyone huddled around a campfire telling ghost stories. With a quick internet search on his phone, Evan pulls up a poem about a creature called the “Hisji,” a vengeful entity that when its name is spoken five times, it’s unleashed to wreak havoc. Suddenly, the group is plagued by strange occurrences as this entity stalks and preys on them one by one.
As Evan begins uncovering the legend of the Hisji, he learns of its connection to the disappearance of a family, complete with crime-scene photos. Let’s not forget the strange, ritualistic markings he found in the shed behind the cabin they’re staying in. I’m sure they just forgot to mention that in the Air BnB description. It is all very Blair Witch Project as strange markings and couplings of five begins to appear, in the form of wood burnings, stacks of beer, cigarettes and more.
In typical Blair Witch fashion, less is more. You never see the entity in its true form, however you catch glimpses and other strange happenings caused by the Hisji. Instead of becoming an all-out blood bath, Callahan forgoes the slasher route in favor of a more psychological-induced horror. The Hisji unleashes chaos in the form of mind games, slowly tearing the group apart from the inside out. As the chaos ensues, the viewer becomes just as confused and disoriented as the characters as they try to piece together the mystery.
Additionally, Head Count plays on many different Horror tropes. Between campfire stories, the douche-y guy that hates the newcomer due to jealously, the girl that parties too hard, the comic-relief, and the girl-next-door that our protagonist inevitably falls for. Like most teen Horror flicks, many of the characters are unlikable or down-right forgettable.
Some of the characters feel so casual, that as terror unfolds, it’s hard to feel anything aside from judgement for their poor decisions. While seemingly bland, it’s hard to not feel for Evan as he fights for survival. Not because he’s inherently likable, but mostly for the sake of his brother. Party-girl Camille (Bevin Bru: The Vixens 2015, Private Sales series) was a bright spot, as she was honestly just a joy to watch as one of the more relatable, fun characters of the bunch.
What Callahan does well is disclosing the bare minimum, giving you enough to try and put the pieces together yourself, which ultimately gives the film the fright factor that it needs. As a viewer, you are inclined to keep watching, hoping for more answers. The camera-work is as disorienting as it’s plot, but for some reason it works at highlighting the storyline. That said, the sound design is just as effective, which was also done by Callahan who previously worked on films such as 2015’s Krampus, Avengers: Age of Ultron and 2017’s Wonder Woman.
Overall, Head Count is entertaining and it’s a must-see for anyone that wishes to support indie Horror film-making. That is why Cryptic Rock gives it 3 out of 5 stars.