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HEAD COUNT Is an Original Monster Movie with a Lot of Character (LA Film Festival Review)

Creating a new, original monster for a horror movie is a challenge rarely even attempted these days. So even if one doesn’t quite reach instant classic status, it’s nice to see people try. Head Count wants you to buy into its malevolent creature called the hisji, an amalgam of various Native American folktale monsters with bits of Candyman and Slender Man DNA scattered into the mix. It’s a shapeshifter that mimics somebody familiar to its potential victims in order to get close to them so it can then coerce them into suicide. It also has a thing for the number five. While not specifically tied to region, it’s particularly creepy in the Joshua Tree desert, where campers can easily find themselves far from anyone else.

When you write it out like that, with the fact that it’s summoned by reading its name five times in an Internet creepypasta, it doesn’t necessarily all add up. But when it’s trying to kill people, there’s no time to stop and think, “Hmm, this predator’s motives aren’t entirely logical!” You just want to get away from it. Not understanding it is part of the scare. Director Elle Callahan, whose background is in post-production and sound design, maintains the pace so you don’t have time to wonder what the hisji is thinking or why. You just know it’s going to be bad.

Before it’s summoned, however, she takes her time building characters. Protagonist Evan (Isaac W. Jay) is quickly established as having a tense relationship with his straight-edge, trailer-dwelling, hippie-ish brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), though both hope to remedy that with a weekend together out in the desert. After Peyton chides Evan for not getting any dates, they come across a group of fellow travelers, including one very obviously single photographer named Zoe (Ashleigh Morgan). Evan joins them around a campfire, and they read aloud from scary stories they find online. And sure enough, things start to go wrong from there.

Head Count makes an interesting contrast to another horror movie at LAFF previously reviewed here, The Dead Center. While that one took a few familiar working actors and made them feel like regular people in a real setting, Head Count takes a cast of mostly unknowns who quite pointedly look like actors (perfect teeth, makeup, and generic clothes in super-clean colors) and puts them in at least one major setting that looks like a decorated set. Yet both films work, in their own way.

Ultimately, it’s story and performance that count, and particularly with most of the cast having to double-duty as the hisji at some point. Callahan honed her skills having worked on special effects for Marvel movies and in the editorial department for Wonder Woman, and her ability to work here with 11 major characters at once will be a great calling card if and when she returns to superheroes in a more prominent role.

Not everything here works. Most good monster movies should give the heroes at least some kind of chance to win, and you wonder with all Evan’s Googling of the hisji why he never actually Googles how to stop it. And in its true form, the creature isn’t as scary as when it’s a shadowy thing that’s augmented with slight digital flashes and rattlesnake sound effects. But there’s enough good here to make the less-good aspects forgivable: you root for Evan and Zoe to be a couple who last, and outlast. I suspect Callahan is rooting for sequels, in which she may reveal more of her lore.

Since I did actually do an online search for hisji to see if it was a real thing (it’s not), the premise clearly worked. And I wouldn’t mind seeing it work again.

3 out of 5

Images: MPRM Publicity via LAFF

Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association and probably not a hisji, but that’s exactly what a hisji would say. You can find him on all the usual social channels.


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