Thursday, June 13, 2019

Head Count: High Fives

The number five generally has positive symbolic significance—five elements, five senses, five fingers and toes, but there is that pentagram to consider. A shape-shifting demon-spirit who derives its power from manifestations of fives follows in that tradition. It turns out Party of Five could have been a real horror show. A group of hard-partying college kids learn there isn’t always safety in numbers in Elle Callahan’s Head Count, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Evan is not exactly thrilled to be spending his spring break with his New Agey tree-hugger brother Peyton, so he jumps at the opportunity to bail for a night of drinking and smoking with the attractive Zoe and her obnoxious friends. She actually seems nice, as well as attractive, whereas the others are basically stock characters. In fact, Evan is not really sure who they all are, which makes it easy for him to be fooled when the shape-shifting “Hisji” starts impersonating them.

Technically, it is sort of Evan’s fault. He invokes the supernatural entity when he recited an incantation from spooky story website as part of their campfire festivities. Suddenly, weirdness starts happening. Evan picks up on it first, whereas most of Zoe’s friends are too drunk, stoned, or willfully oblivious to register all the redecorating the Hisji does while they are passed.

This is a rare case where Head Count’s lo-fi look and texture really works in its favor. The film just has an eerie vibe baked into it. Callahan also pulls off several seriously freaky scenes, mostly through the use of clever editing rather than special effects. As a result, she makes a number of tried and true horror conventions feel new and fresh again.

Ashley Morghan is more seductive and vulnerable as Zoe than a horror movie character like her has any right to expect. She also drums up a fair amount of chemistry with Isaac Jay’s Evan. Bevin Bru has her moments as Camille, Zoe’s drinks-like-she-has-a-hollow-leg best pal, but the rest of the revelers largely blend together (possibly by design). Regardless, Callahan’s mastery of atmosphere is impressive. Viewers are enveloped in a sense of messed-up foreboding, right from the start.

Head Count is not as original as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, but the two films share similar sensibilities, which is saying a lot. In some ways, Callahan’s film is a textbook horror movie, especially considering what happens to those who over-indulge in booze, pot, and randy behavior. However, Callahan and screenwriter Michael Nader finds ways to put clever twists on the genre elements that distinguish the film from the horror field. Special thanks are also due to the editor, Nick Garnham Wright, for cutting it all together in such a crafty manner. Highly recommended for horror fans, Head Count opens tomorrow (6/14) in LA, at the Arena Cinemas.