Head Count Review: A creepy, slick, and fresh feature debut from writer/director Elle Callahan
You know, it’s rare when the concept of the film immediately has me hooked, but that’s what happened when I came across Head Count. The cast is full of unknown actors and writer/director Elle Callahan has only done technical work for most of her career, but the simplistic premise of a group of friends being invaded by an evil presence that mimics all of their looks had me immediately intrigued with what she had to offer to the horror genre. Once I finally sat down to see if there was any worth for my sense of intrigue towards the film, I was pleasantly surprised.
Head Count is not only a film that utilizes its simple premise effectively to create a great slow-burn and great sequences, but it’s an excellent debut for Elle Callahan and features some great breakout performances from the young cast.
As said before, the film follows a group of teens, specifically newcomer Evan (Isaac Jay), as they vacation in Joshua Tree, California. However, things take a strange turn after Evan reads a strange chant during a ghost sharing session around the campfire and he unknowingly unleashes a spirit that’s looking to enact a deadly ritual on the group. Since this supernatural force can mimic the appearance of anyone in the group, Evan and the group must figure out what the spirit is after before it completes its deadly ritual.
What makes Head Count such an engaging film to watch is how it utilizes the perspective of Evan as a newcomer to the group and some horror tropes in order for viewers to get to know characters. I constantly thought it was funny how I kept attempting to remember everyone’s name just as Evan was and it made me connect to him better because we shared a similar perspective. There’s a great moment where Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a girl that Evan likes in the group, talks to Evan about the relationships in the group and, the next day, Evan is repeating all of the names to himself to remember everyone. It comes off realistically because of Jay’s strong performance and he really melds into being a great lead.
Writer Michael Nader and Callahan also come together to give characters their own unique looks and sort of craft their personalities from horror tropes. From their looks to even the way they act at times, most of the group definitely resembles some common tropes seen in the genre, like Nico (Hunter Peterson) being the stoner, or Max (Billy Meade) being the “bad boy,” and Camille (Bevin Bru) being the party girl. However, their tropes never fully become their personalities as the cast puts in great performances that help flesh out their characters past their tropes a bit and it’s actually funny how they’re constantly repeating each other’s names never got old. Even having a large cast of ten, relatively main, characters can be a daunting task, but Callahan is truly in full control of it and makes things that traditionally wouldn’t work and makes them some of the strongest aspects of the film.
Callahan’s camera work is also absolutely stellar as she captures the stunning Joshua Tree desert to create a sense of loneliness and has sequences that are suspenseful and creepy. Other than one major jump cut, Head Count has some pretty flawless camera work and she’s at her strong when she utilizes the background to have something sinister happening in the background. She uses the idea of the entity mimicking some of the group perfectly and spaces out the scares enough to where each one is surprising. The premise never feels overdone and it never feels completely obvious who the mimic is exactly portraying or when it’s actually there, so when the realization hits that characters are interacting with the entity it’s actually surprising. There’s a great sequence with a drinking game that ends in a legitimately surprising moment and is followed by a well-executed, suspenseful sequence. Moments like these are littered throughout the film and there are some great jump scares that don’t feel cheap because of how Callahan sets them up.
Callahan also utilizes some less is more tactics to leave some of the more gruesome moments up to the viewer’s imagination. Towards the end of the film, when the blood actually starts to flow, Callahan doesn’t rely on blood and gore to shock viewers. Instead, she only shows small clues and scenes of it and then expertly cuts away with only audio cues to describe the carnage that’s happening. It’s honestly more bone-chilling this way and this kind of choice shows that Callahan is no novice at horror. This kind of approach is also used for the film’s central entity, the Hisje, as its background is left mostly in the dark and it works in creating a truly mysterious antagonist. Although I definitely desired for more moments with Hisje antagonizing the group and mimicking the group as well as some expansion to his mythos, the way the creature is still presented is interesting enough to keep viewers entertained.
Where the film can fall a little flat on its face, though, is with the Hisje itself as its design is incredibly disappointing and, honestly, looks like trash. Honestly, I would’ve preferred its look be just kept completely in the dark as it already had a suspenseful presence and there’s already something really creepy about how it blends in seamlessly with the group. Up until the reveal, the film never had a low-budget look and Callahan does a great job in making the film truly feel theatrical. However, the reveal and sequence of the Hisje changing into different characters makes the film looks cheap and completely took me out of the film, which was unfortunate because, up until that point, I was really sucked in. There’s actually a great moment where Evan and Zoe see the creature in the distance, shrouded in darkness, and it’s really how the Hisje should’ve been shown throughout the entire film.
I also wish that there wasn’t such a heavy reliance on the score to build up suspense as it can be quite overbearing at times. Frankly, the use of more ambient noise or quite space would’ve worked better as the score can be quite distracting and would’ve sucked viewers into the environment more. The score also can be too loud at times and drown out the dialogue too much.
With Head Count, Callahan presents both a talented cast that’s fun throughout the film and a style that builds excellent suspense that’s elevated thanks to the film’s slick premise. It’s truly a stand-out feature debut and it’ll be interesting to see her return for future projects that hopefully allows her to continue to create more fresh content and work with a slightly bigger budget. It’s a definite must-see for any and all horror fans out there and something that viewers should give a chance as they won’t be disappointed.