Saturday, 6 February 2021

Shudder Saturday: Head Count (2018)

Remember when everyone embraced It Follows, despite a third act that had one of the dumbest attempts to capture a villain I can think of? The central idea was strong enough to make it stand out, and the execution of the main scare moments was pretty flawless. I mention it here because Head Count is a very similar film, in certain specific ways.

Isaac Jay plays Evan, a young man who heads into the desert for some quality time with his brother (Peyton, played by Cooper Rowe). Meeting a group of students there, and becoming quite immediately drawn to Zoe (Ashleigh Morgan), Evan heads off to spend some time enjoying their company, leaving Peyton behind. Things eventually lead to the inevitable tradition of telling scary stories around a campfire, and Evan scours the internet until he finds a tale about a creature called a Hisji. It's something that appears once its name is spoken five times, but it appears in the guise of someone else in any group of five. And the students number ten, which is two groups of five. And so begins a creepy tale of paranoia and stolen identities.

Written by Michael Nader, Head Count is based on a story idea by first-time director Elle Callahan. The springboard for everything may be a bit silly, and is the weakest part of the film, but it's easy to forgive as the film starts to get interesting, using some more obvious tactics to develop the creepy atmosphere before focusing on the more subtle ways in which it can become unsettling. You may think this is a film that spends a lot of time without any big scares happening, but get used to trying to keep track of the various characters and making sure everyone is where they should be. Callahan has crafted something that feels surprisingly original, and effective, and I am keen to give it a rewatch with my mind/eyes prepared to be even more observant.

Jay is a decent lead, and has to react to some very unexpected scenes in the third act, while Morgan is excellent alongside him, drawing viewers in and staying a likeable and sympathetic character that nobody wants to see affected by this odd, shape-shifting creature. The large supporting cast makes it hard to keep up with everyone, and some individuals make less impact than others, but this also adds to the trickery on display (or not on display, because one extra person being in a group often isn’t noticeable with so many bodies onscreen at any one time).

A promising feature debut from Callahan, who is definitely someone to keep an eye on, Head Count is a fascinating and thought-provoking film, with ideas bubbling under the surface about the sense of self-identity. The developing mistrust and paranoia is slightly reminiscent of The Thing, although it's not on a par with that absolute classic. I'd easily rate it as equal to It Follows though, and would be interested to find out whether or not fans of that film agree with me.


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