When Evan, a student played by Isaac Jay, ventures out to Joshua Tree to visit his weirdo older brother, he quickly ditches family obligations to instead spend time with a group of CW-looking Youth™ who invite him to hang out with them and get high, get drunk and experience Extreme Nature. After a long day being twenty-somethings in the desert, the Youth™ head back to a rental home they have procured and settle into their nightly ritual of drugs and telling each other spooky stories.
When the Youth™ pressure their new friend Evan to try and scare them, Evan is forced to admit he has no imagination for scary stories. No problem, the Youth™ say! They recommend Evan visit anonymousnightmares.com, a site that contains Creepypasta, or user submitted scary stories for those not in the know. Unfortunately, living bar of soap Evan doesn’t know Creepypasta from his elbow and, instead of picking a Slenderman story to tell, he reads a poem about a shapeshifting snake monster named Hisji.
Evan, Evan, Evan - everybody knows poetry found on the internet has an 80 percent chance of being intended to summon demons and, wouldn’t you know it, Hisji comes out to play. The snake infiltrates the group of Youth™ to enact its sinister plans - plans that involve murder over pot, naturally.
With Head Count, Elle Callahan shows tremendous promise in her future as a horror filmmaker. The tension she slowly builds throughout the film is palpable and she does an admirable job building backstory for one or two of the film’s youngsters. Unfortunately, not all of the film’s characters are sketched as deeply as others and the film is ultimately weighed down by a collection of milquetoast, unmemorable characters the audience will find difficulty telling apart from one another. In fact, in the film itself Evan comments about how he can’t tell the difference between his new friends - and neither can the audience! The kids are hip, attractive and full of angst - but you’d be a savant if you can tell which characters are which by the end of the movie.
In the vein of films such as Coherence, +1 and other low-budget thrillers that use a limited number of locations, a large ensemble cast and a high-concept idea to create maximum tension, Head Count makes good use of its limited resources. The idea - a snake monster that can become the doppelganger of anybody it wishes and, like a slithery The Count, is obsessed with the number five (really, I didn’t make that up) - is pretty fun and the movie does some great stuff with keeping audiences guessing as to which of the Youth™ has been replaced by Hisji in any given scene.
Hisji, seems primed to be a franchise player, with much of its backstory and secrets kept just out of reach from audiences. Sequels, spin-offs and a syndicated television show would have surely been in Hisji’s future if the movie built around it had been stronger. Sadly, though, I think audiences have seen the last of Hisji. A movie monster is only as good as the people it kills and unfortunately neither Callahan nor the cast assembled had what it took to elevate the film beyond a momentary diversion. At least they got to hang out at Joshua Tree for a few weeks.
That said, there’s some seriously fun technical skills at play in Head Count that make me sure Callahan is going to go on to film something really fun and really scary in the near future. She has the storytelling skills, she just needs a stronger script and stronger cast and I guarantee she’ll deliver something worth paying attention to in the next go-around. I hope whatever she does next has more monsters obsessed with numbers - that’s fun!