At a sleepover in fifth grade, my friends and I goaded each other to go into the bathroom at midnight, close the door, and spin three times chanting, “Bloody Mary.” If the urban legend was true, Mary herself would’ve come out of the mirror and killed the speaker. We were terrified. Elle Callahan’s feature length directorial debut Head Count taps into that folk fear with an original, shapeshifting monster.
Evan (Isaac Jay) is visiting his brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe) in Joshua Tree National Park over Spring Break when he meets Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan) and her hard-partying group of friends. He ditches Peyton for them, not knowing what he’s getting into. He has no idea what he’s doing when they start reading each other scary stories from “anonymousnightmares.com” and he reads, the incantation to summon the Hisji:
A HISJI is a vengeful thing
Five times its name you never sing
With skin pale white and eyes of green
It’s something you’ve already seen.
After that, things get weird. Evan and Zoe notice a shadowy figure watching them when they’re in the hot tub. Things inside the cabin Zoe and her friends rented start arranging themselves into groups of five. All of the fives in the deck of cards they were playing Kings Cup with are flipped over. Lights go out. But strangest of all, they started out as a group of nine. Four couples and Zoe (“Three times rougher than being the third wheel” Evan quips). Evan made ten, but there are eleven. Or nine. People are in two places at once. Or one of them isn’t the original person.
The movie gets its name, Head Count, from the constant counting you have to do as a viewer. Callahan makes it more challenging by having the camera circle the characters when they’re sitting still, almost never showing the entire group at once, which is doubly effective because it makes the film feel like it’s in constant motion.
Adding to the tension of needing to count characters in every scene is that Callahan has put the viewer in Evan’s shoes. He doesn’t know all of their names. His struggles to keep track lead to the audience struggling as well. If there’s two of anyone, one is the Hisji. It’s a brilliant monster design because it chops the special effects budget to near nothing. The Hisji looks like whoever its pretending to be. No makeup required.
Callahan also does a great job capturing the frenetic energy of a college party: the different rooms with the different games and the constant shouting for more alcohol. If it weren’t for the Hisji, I’d wish that I was there.
Part of that feeling comes from Head Count being well acted or well scripted. When things are working, it’s hard to tell the difference. When Nico (Hunter Peterson) suggests shrooms for breakfast, another answers, “Not again, Nico.” When Nico is trying to prove his innocence later on, he says, “Hand on God. Bible.” It’s kind of spoken gaffe that people make all the time. Screenwriter Michael Nader peppers more like that in, making all of the dialogue feel more real without letting it get in the way of story and the actors deliver the lines believably.
The best part of the script is the Hisji poem, though. I can imagine viewers reading it out loud to see what happens after they watch the movie. It feels like a real urban legend.
The soundtrack is another highlight. It’s understated, but puts a twist of menace at the right moments to make them really pop. Head Count doesn’t rely on jump scares though, instead building an atmosphere where everything doesn’t quite add up.
See this movie before the Hisji sees you!
Wicked Rating: 8/10
Director: Elle Callahan
Writers: Michael Nader, Elle Callahan (Story)
Stars: Isaac Jay, Ashleigh Morghan, Hunter Peterson, Cooper Rowe
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Studio/Production Company: Godmother Industries
Run Time: 90 minutes
Subgenre: Folk Horror