★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A remarkable debut feature film that expands on a familiar curse, and continues to tweak and adjust the theme as the plot unfurls.
Directed by Elle Callahan
Hisje. Hisje. Hisje. Hisje. Hisje. OK, now we’ve got a good old fashioned curse going. Elle Callahan’s directorial feature advances the cause of the old Bloody Mary/Candyman curse trope in an engaging and focused film with some innovative new wrinkles. The movie lets you in on its secrets one at a time, and they layer up in a way that allows you to puzzle through with the story with the characters.
Ethan (Isaac Jay) is a college student on break who is travelling to visit his brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe) in Joshua Tree National Park, with whom he has a problematic relationship. Peyton is a neo-hippie, but he’s also a tea toting, clean living individual. On a hike into the park, the brothers encounter a group of young revelers, and Ethan is smitten with a young photographer, Zoe (Ashleigh Morgan), and convinces Peyton to allow him to spend the evening with Zoe and her large group of companions.
They retreat to a house that they are renting, adjacent to the park, and they waste no time in getting their drinking and drugging on. It’s party time in the desert! During the course of so much revelry, Ethan tries to sort through the group dynamics of who is dating who, and what the social pecking order is, when they gather around and tell ghost stories by the campfire. Some traditions never get old, do they? Ethan is at a loss for a story when it becomes his turn, so he goes online and finds the story of Hisje, a vengeful shape-shifting spirit who if you say his name five times will destroy his summoners. Sound familiar?
Thankfully, Head Count is able to subtly handle the tricks and manipulation that the Hisje performs upon the group. Some of the party seem to go missing, or seem to be in two places at once. Some of the group are behaving erratically with suicidal actions. Because they have cooked themselves in so many recreational substances that they can’t think straight, they chalk it up to drug induced hallucinations, but rather than retreat from the debauchery, they continue to forge ahead with their merrymaking.
There are some wonderful reveals, particularly with the use of the number five as they play out, first in the background, and then fairly dramatically. Also, because you have such a large cast of potential victims, the audience is trying to “count heads” along with Ethan. So wait, how many people are supposed to be here? It’s a very smart script that they are working with, and though some of the characters are rather arch, and prototypes, nothing feels overly forced, which is accomplishment for a director fairly new to the craft.
One of the things that a number of us who saw the film have complained about is that the director should not have shown the Hisje. It’s always tricky to do a doppelganger well, (US did it really well) but showing the actual creature in its natural form was a production mistake, as the creature looks like something out of the Star Trek alien handbook. Sadly, the monster was relatively muppety.
Isaac Jay and Ashleigh Morgan are very good as the young leads of the film, and this could prove to be a good launch pad for both of their careers. Jay is earnest and has a nice gravity in his performance, and Morgan alternates from being radiant to sullen, and sells her role(s) really well.
Head Count as of this date does not have an MPAA rating, but it would certainly muster an R rating, largely for rampant drug use, suicidal themes, and language, but the film is not particularly gory. There is some, but it is not extreme.
Review by Eric Li