A carefree trip to the California desert for a long weekend of sightseeing and partying turns unexpectedly deadly for a group of young vacationers in Elle Callahan’s Head Count. Favoring psychological chills over blood-soaked mayhem, Callahan’s impressively crafted debut nods to recent horror classics while displaying an eminently distinctive vision of its own.
A welcome chance for some time off turns out to be a bit of a bummer for Evan (Isaac Jay), who regretfully sees his friends off from LAX before driving down to Joshua Tree for a visit with his reclusive brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe). A bit of a desert rat, Peyton shuns technology, ignoring Evan’s calls and messages while peacefully meditating in his ramshackle one-bedroom trailer when he’s not enthusiastically embracing the outdoors. So naturally his first suggestion for some long-overdue brother bonding is a hike in the surrounding high desert, where they run into a group of nine young vacationers out for a ramble and a toke or two. Evan catches the eye of cute photographer Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), prompting her friend Camille (Bevin Bru) to invite him to join the group. When they prepare to depart he elects to follow, thoughtlessly abandoning Peyton, who has no interest in romance or partying anyway.
Back at their spacious rental, beers and tequila shooters lead to bonfire ghost stories in the backyard. Unprepared for the night’s entertainment, Evan falls back on a quick Internet search with his phone and finds an apparently random website devoted to the “Hisji.” It’s described as a “vengeful thing” that’s evoked once its name is spoken five times in the brief entry he reads aloud to the group, but the rowdy partiers immediately dismiss his lame effort. Still, when Evan and Zoe are hot-tubbing outside later, he’s sure he catches a glimpse of a mysterious figure watching them from beyond the reach of the backyard floodlights, leaving Evan to wonder if the mysterious Hisji may have somehow latched onto their group.
Head counters will quickly grasp that with the addition of Evan, the group constitutes two subsets of five members, representing the insidious number that potentiates the Hisji, whose curse is particularly diabolical and deadly. Much of the final running time gets devoted to the consequences of these groupings, but Michael Nader’s script, based on a story co-written with Callahan, remains short on details about the creepy intruder’s origins and intent.
When Evan borrows a laptop to revisit the Hisji website midway through the movie, he discovers its association with the disturbing disappearance of a young family, documented with crime scene-style reports and photos. This is about as much detail as the writers offer in an aside that’s reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project’s far more extensive online backstory about the titular legend and its ill-fated investigators.
Callahan intuitively grasps that as with the Paranormal Activity series’ mostly unseen demon “Toby,” the less that’s known about the menacing Hisji, the more terrifying it becomes. Although working in a more subdued register than Oren Peli’s groundbreaking horror franchise, Callahan can be observed laying down the foundational Hisji mythology, amplifying the implications of the film’s final scenes.
The size of the ensemble cast, determined by the film’s internal numerology, is a bit too large for all the characters to really stand out, but Morghan and Jay help set an initially playful tone that grows increasingly strained as the vacationers begin questioning their predicament and start turning on one another in desperation.
Callahan relies on an economical style that initially discloses only the details necessary to advance the narrative, but as the group’s situation becomes more dire, she tilts toward more disorienting camera work, disembodied tracking shots and disconcerting framing. Mention should also be made regarding the film’s superior sound design, also created by Callahan, which far exceeds the ambitions of most independent films. The immersive soundscape’s background thrumming and humming seems initially innocuous until it escalates to ominous rumbling and shrieking that compound the confusion and terror of the Hisji’s uncomprehending victims.
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Production company: Godmother Industries
Cast: Ashleigh Morghan, Isaac Jay, Bevin Bru, Sam Marra, Billy Meade, Hunter Peterson, Chelcie May, Tory Freath, Michael Herman, Cooper Rowe
Director: Elle Callahan
Screenwriter: Michael Nader
Producers: Sam Sandweiss, Brandon Somerhalder
Executive producers: Hunter Peterson, Haoliang Harvey Zhang, Elle Callahan, Eric B. Fleishman, Lauri Apelian
Director of photography: Sean Bagley
Production designer: Anthony Ruff
Costume designer: Mallory Evelyn
Editor: Nick Wright
Music: Hannah Parrott