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
Director Elle Callahan’s horror debut Head Count opens with this demon-summoning verse, perhaps bringing to mind the likes of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Bernard Rose’s Candyman. Yet Callahan seems to have been more inspired by James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows – meta-trips that deal with mysterious forces beyond our understanding, fucking with protagonists’ heads (and bodies). While those films were razor-sharp examples of their kind, open to various interpretations, Callahan hasn’t quite achieved her peers’ level of craft. Head Count’s central antagonist – the “vengeful thing with skin pale white and eye of green” – akin to the film’s flimsy plot, is certainly “something you’ve already seen.”
Evan (Isaac Jay) visits his older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), who lives off-the-grid in the Joshua Tree desert, meditating in his downtrodden trailer. Since the death of their parents, Peyton’s been a stand-in father figure to Evan. A long history of resentment and unspoken feelings seems to haunt the polar-opposite orphans, yet it’s barely touched upon before they embark on a hike, consequently encountering the film’s central “group of fucked-up strangers”: eight young couples and the single, attractive Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan). Instantly developing chemistry with the latter, Evan abandons his big bro, going back to drink and smoke at the group’s rented cottage.
“All the partying eventually leads to campfire ghost stories…This leads to increasingly odd occurrences…”
All the partying eventually leads to campfire ghost stories, wherein Evan stumbles across the Hisji website & verse – which he, of course, says at least five times right off the bat. This leads to increasingly odd occurrences: a figure appears in the dark while Zoe and Evan play hanky-panky in an overheated hot-tub; an engraved symbol is discovered in the shed; and Zoe unwillingly steps off a cliff, twisting her ankle. “It was like I was a passenger in my own body,” she recollects shakily.
Our heroes begin to either duplicate or split in two, running/morphing into versions of themselves. Despite Peyton’s pleas to return home, Evan stays with his new friends, only to discover that he’s summoned “a shifting creature” that “hides in plain sight” and whose “power comes from five,” enacting “a suicidal curse.” It also likes to scramble laptop screens, apparently. The ending, with its poor SFX and purposeful ambiguity, is more likely to induce laughter than shivers.
Head Count takes a while to get going, and once it does, it doesn’t really go anywhere intriguing. One of the main issues is the lack of true characterization. They’re all archetypes: the asshole Max (Billy Meade), the loud party-girl Camille (Bevin Bru), the nerdy Sam (Michael Herman), the druggie Nico (Hunter Petersen)… The actors all do a decent job living up to those stereotypes, but they rarely transcend them. Evan himself comes across as a bit of a one-note dick, for whom it’s difficult to root. Not that anyone’s working with award-worthy dialogue, mind you. “That makes me the ninth wheel,” Zoe says of her single status. “That’s three times rougher than the third wheel,” Evan pointedly states.
“It was like I was a passenger in my own body…”
The film’s central gimmick – the demonic Hisji – is similarly not fleshed out enough to truly resonate. Worst of all, its main subject – suicide – is used mainly as an engine to power this gimmick, which comes dangerously close to being offensive. The very real issue of suicide is never explored, be it delicately or otherwise. According to Callahan, those young adults simply deserve to kill themselves. At least Shyamalan blamed nature for all the suicides in The Happening.
There’s a great story buried somewhere deep within the desert that is Head Count – about a brotherly bond, about jealousies that assume anthropomorphic shapes, about a demon that literally reflects our insecurities. Ellen Callahan hints at those stories but ends up telling the most basic version. Not quite the head trip it purports to be, Head Count is more likely to have you counting minutes until it’s over.
Head Count (2019) Directed by Elle Callahan. Written by Michael Nader. Starring Isaac Jay, Cooper Rowe, Ashleigh Morghan, Bevin Bru, Tory Freeth, Michael Herman, Sam Marra, Amaka Obiechie, Hunter Peterson, Riley Scott, Billy Meade, Chelcie May.
5 out of 10