An isolated structure in the middle-of-nowhere. Teenagers boozing, drugging, and fucking their way through a long weekend. Harmless ghost stories read around the fire at night to the dismissive sounds of laughter. It’s a scene that genre fans are all too familiar with yet, for some reason, we just can’t get enough of it. Sometimes trite and formulaic but always gruesome, the cabin in the woods scenario is a staple of horror entertainment and, on rare occasion, one that still manages to surprise us. Head Count is one of those surprising exceptions.
Head Count is the story of Evan (Isaac Jay), a teenage college student spending his spring break in Joshua Tree National Forest with his new age hippie brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe). Of course, the reunion doesn’t last long when Evan meets Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan) and her friends who are partying hard in a rented house a few miles away. Invited by Zoe to join the group for the weekend, Evan quickly runs off to drink, smoke, shroom, and sex his troubles away. Gathered around a campfire, the group begins to tell scary stories from a Creepy Pasta style website. But when Evan recites the poem of the Hisji, things start to get weird.
Things aren't what they appear to be in Head Count.
Written and directed by Elle Callahan, Head Count is atmospheric, entertaining, and creepy as hell. The film doesn’t just throw us into an all you can glut buffet of gore and violence but rather builds suspense as you become familiar with the cast of characters assembled. Meanwhile, familiar faces from the crew seem to be in two places at once as the audience wonders if this is all a prolonged drug trip or, perhaps, something far more sinister.
Head Count relies heavily on the isolation aspect of the setting to deliver its most powerful chills as the camera pans across the vast deserts and monumental stones of Joshua Tree. Whereas contemporary and classic cabin films have focused on the all encompassing forest walls as a means to cut off our characters from the world around them, the emptiness that stretches on forever of this particular locale is somehow more fitting.
I’m a creature feature fan and, if I have one complaint --and you knew I was going to complain about something-- it’s the Hisji itself. While the design is great, the actual reveal of the creature is underwhelming.
The story of Head Count feels allegorical in places the way any good cabin in the woods narrative should. There’s the obvious allusions of teens breaking societal morals by boozing and carousing only to pay for it with their lives, sure, but there is more to it than that. The Hisji itself never directly kills a single one of our doomed heroes, rather its presence suggests to them that drifting off into an almost trancelike state to commit suicide would be better than continuing to live. It uses them as a proxy, something that has been unsettling to see ever since the Slenderman attack committed by two teen girls in the midwest several years ago. The idea of a creature, born of internet lore preying on teenagers and convincing them to murder themselves… well, that feels not only fresh but chilling.
Head Count hits digital streaming and theaters June 14th. Check out the trailer below.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan on social media @dotdblog and read his stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.