Monday, April 13, 2020

Five By Five

Following last week's review of Just Dec's Countdown, we dive into yet another first time filmmaker's debut that ALSO has the word "Count" in its title. I'd love to say this was planned and that there's some big theme brewing, but really, I got nothing. 

Sometimes I wonder why I insist on writing introductions. 

Quick Plot: College student Evan is visiting new age big brother Peyton in the California desert. Upon a scenic mountain hike, Evan catches the eye of Zoe, who's moping through a holiday weekend with four sets of coupled friends. Torn between sleeping on the floor in Peyton's trailer or in bed with Zoe at her amazingly isolated Airbnb, Evan makes his choice.

That night, his new gang pairs some fireside ghost stories with an endless supply of tequila. Evan stumbles upon an urban legend website and reads a quick tale about something called a hisji, a demon obsessed with the number of five. While the gang laughs it off, Evan senses something wrong in the air.

Over the next day or two, things begin to go very, very wrong. What starts as a few power outages and mysteriously unpredictable games of Never Have I Ever morphs into a rash of dopplegangers and violent suicide. 

This is what you get for ditching your caretaker brother for a gaggle of obnoxious teenagers.

Directed by newcomer Elle Callahan (from her and Michael Nader's script), Head Count is an interesting, imperfect twist on the traditional "hot young people fight a mysterious demon in a secluded location" trope. The actual nature of the hisji's evil--how it can only attack groups of five--is executed with a lot of cleverness, forcing the audience to constantly reassess each frame. Callahan stages some genuinely haunting shots, especially in the early stages when we still don't quite know what to look for. 

Perhaps the biggest issue with Head Count comes down to its very title. With a group of ten attractive but mostly personality-free cast members, it's hard to care too deeply about most of their fate. Aside from Evan and Zoe, only Camille (Bevin Bru) and her young Brittany Murphy vibe makes any real impression. Sure, there's only so much time in a 90 minute straight-to-Netflix horror film, but it still feels as though the film makes no real effort to distinguish the group.

As a result, I found there to be a little bit of distance between myself and the finale of Head Count. I was more intrigued by the plotting than invested in the characters' fate, which certainly took some of the fear out of my watch. Still, this is a film made with both skill and creativity, and that's not always easy to find.

High Points
I get the feeling Head Count would be even more interesting on rewatch, as Callahan drops quite a few intriguing visual clues before the audience (or characters) figure out the hisji's rulebook 

Low Points
Look, I know I'm not really ever supposed to care that much about hot young fodder in a horror movie, but I like to at least be able to remember how many are left

Lessons Learned
The best cure for a hot tub that's too hot is a bottle of tequila

Nothing says "not cool" like a lighter decorated with a race car design

Anyone who goes desert hiking in Converse All-Stars, the least supportive sneaker ever made, kind of deserves a fate of demonic proportions

Head Count has some issues, but for one of those pretty people in peril movies that simply appears on a Netflix list, it's a well-made little ride with more than a few surprises. It's not necessarily a must-see, but Elle Callahan is clearly a filmmaker to watch. 

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