Early on in Head Count, which fits into a recent trend for Air BnB horror, the fairly passive protagonist Evan (Isaac W. Jay) falls in with a group of nine vacationing young people – ditching his protective but weird older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe) because he strikes sparks with attractive Zoe (Ashleigh Morgan) – and asks the girl he likes for a backstory on the group, and she shuttles quickly through all their names and relationships with onscreen snippets to tag their faces. The next morning, none of that has sunk in and he’s still referring to ‘you know, the blonde girl’ … and only later on does he discover the crucial bit of information that the guy who’s being a dick to him is Zoe’s ticked-off ex. How many slasher movies have you seen where it’s a problem that none of the victims register as characters before their death scenes? Here’s a rare film that deliberately doesn’t let you – or Evan – sort out who everyone is, because that makes it easier for the menace to infiltrate the group with its particular m.o. It even makes sense that the excellent cast are all unfamiliar faces, though if any of them go on to stardom (Morgan is a stunner) rewatching this might be like looking at Friday the 13th after Kevin Bacon hit big.
A lot of low-budget horror films headed for streaming and homevideo use widescreen as an indulgence, but this is especially well-shot, to take advantage of spectacular Joshua Tree locations, but also to get as many of the cast onscreen in shots as possible, with the title nudging the attentive viewer into taking head counts that don’t always add up. The monster is a ‘hisji’, introduced via creepypasta website, with is summoned Candyman/Bloody Mary-style by saying its name five times – but then has a compulsion to pick on groups of five, mostly taking on the shape of someone who’s just in the next room, and leaves odd quintuple omens laying around – carved pentathing signs, but also the remnants of what looks like a party of five – before shifting to its malign endgame, which is shocking but also restrained. In her first feature, director Elle Callahan – who co-wrote with Michael Nader – avoids a lot of predictable business, and has a refreshing attitude to horrors as she lets physical nastiness flash by while concentrating on the emotional fallout.
Even Evan and Peyton don’t spell out their backstory – for some reason, the dropout-type older sibling doesn’t drink or do drugs but he’s into crystal sound-baths that ‘make you feel fucked up’ – and there’s an interesting tension in Evan’s understandable but shabby treatment of Peyton which makes him as much of an asshole as the abrasive alpha in the group. Again, to make the monster work, we only gradually pick up nuances of character among the crowd – with Bevin Bru, Billy Meade, Hunter Peterson, Chelcie May, Tori Freeth, Michael Herman, Amaka Obiechi and Sam Marra playing confidently as if in the fifteenth episode of a soap opera about these characters, without the need to actually explain who they are, and almost everyone also getting to show up as the hisji (or maybe not) in quietly creepy little moments. An actual monster does appear, and doesn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the film but the elliptical climax – a double climax, since the gang offers two sets of five possible victims – reverts to subtler, more rewarding tactics.