★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A stark and haunting minimalist horror-fantasy, about a vengeful father fulfilling his oath to bring down the monster that killed his daughter.
Directed by Jordan Downey
This micro-budget movie shot in Northern Portugal managed to capture the grandeur of high-fantasy on a budget of only $40,000. I would guess that most of that cost was in creating the Head Hunter’s fabulous armor. He comes straight out of Dungeons and Dragons central casting. There are independent short films that cost more to make than this feature film, and yet the director, Downey, managed to maximize everything he had.
Christopher Rygh plays a dark ages barbarian warrior, simply named “The Father” who in the opening of the movie swears an oath to his daughter that he will protect her from the evil monsters that plague the lands as she attempts to rest in their nomadic shelter in the bleak, snowy forest of birches. The Father engages in battle and defeats a monster (you hear it, but don’t see it) but it all ends up for naught as the next seen jumps in time to reveal that his daughter has died, slain by some horrific beast, and is now buried in the pasture in front of the man’s ramshackle log cabin.
He has become a bounty hunter for the local feudal lord in a castle high on the hill. When a monster is sighted, horns blare, and he armors up, gets on his horse and goes hunting. This happens several times, each time with him returning from the fight, with a bloody head of some strange beast in a sack, and himself often showing brutal wounds from the ordeal. He has created a magical salve that seems to miraculously heal these wounds, which look for all intents and purposes to be lethal, but this strange concoction he has made serves as a miracle cure. The effects of this potion will have major ramifications later.
His life is a drudgery. It’s a solitary life, chopping wood, making his elixir, sharpening his blades, and slaying foul fiends in his spare time. His cabin is a rudimentary structure with the heads of his quarry staked to the wall, but it is a building in ill repair, with a window that has seemingly a will of its own, banging gently through several scenes. This annoying, but innocuous quirk will come back to haunt the hunter. It is an omen of something treacherous to come.
For much of the movie, the monster fights are implied, and not shown. To do so would have probably blown the budget, but there is simple power to the way that Downey decides to frame the story. It really does feel like a dark fairy tale of old, where “The man returns home, with a head in hand.” is what you get as a reference. That is until, of course, the monster who slew his daughter has been spotted, and the time for revenge has arisen.
There may be a total of fifteen lines of dialogue in the whole movie, and yet Rygh asserts a steely power, with his body language and acting with his eyes. This really is a one-person movie. The cast sheet has two characters, but the daughter is gone after the first scene, so Rygh has to own the film by himself. It’s probably for the best that it has minimal speech since I found that some of the monologues were incomprehensible, so I ended up turning the subtitles on. The climactic monster apparently is continually moaning “Bodyyyyy” and I’m not sure if I would have picked up on that unless I had the subtitles on. And, it proves to be quite important.
Any doubts about whether this movie is horror-or-not are put to rest with the final moments of the movie which are stunning. It’s a situation that isn’t a complete surprise, but you are dreading what the outcome will be as there are enough clues leading up to it to really let the ending land with real impact.
Movies like The Witch and The Wind are celebrated for using nothing but natural light, or torchlight. In this case, that was done out of budget necessity, and like those other two period-piece movies, it’s quite effective and provides the film some authenticity. The Headhunter’s house apparently is an actual centuries-old grain mill, and it, along with the barren landscape proved to be quite evocative. Downey and his team also decided to de-saturate the color content of the film, with a brief burst of spring flowers towards the end of the movie. It seemed entirely appropriate for such a somber film to live its life in grey tones.
It is a very simple story, devoid of slights of hand or misdirection, and the action is, again, mostly implied, save for the final battle. Some micro-budget movies like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activities are clearly inexpensively done, but this film does its best to try and give you MORE for the budget, and I think independent filmmakers would be wise to study this film for how to maximize their efforts. There is a real hush about the movie, and that manages to draw you in, though I’m sure for some, it may make them sleepy. To provide the living spark to the film, the music composition by Nick Soole is remarkably powerful and helps give this film depth and texture that belies its little independent roots. It feels like a barbarian war march, and in a way helps drive the narrative of the story with its concussive martial pulse.
The Head Hunter is not rated, but would probably merit an R, for some gore and intensity. I think younger audiences would be genuinely spooked by this, but they might also get bored. It’s a slow burner, but your patience is rewarded in the end. Fans of shows like The Vikings might dig this. Rygh is a pretty convincing berserker, practically a superhero in banded leather armor. The Head Hunter is available for streaming on Amazon/Shudder and YouTube.
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