With 2018’s Head Count coming to Shudder this month, I felt it was my personal duty to shout from the rooftops about how much I enjoy Elle Callahan’s debut film. It’s a fun, modern take on a spooky campfire story gone wrong featuring a terrifying creature concept.
The basic setup is that Evan is on break from college to visit his hippie brother Peyton in the middle of the desert. During a hike, the two brothers come across a group of fellow hikers Evan’s age that invite him back to their Airbnb for the night. Peyton encourages him to go and have some fun, cut loose for a night. Which they do, starting off by drinking, drinking…and more drinking. As the night carries on the group decides to sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories. Evan’s turn is up next, but he doesn’t know any good ones. Why not go to this spooky website and read a random story? Well, what’s the worst that could happen? This is the story he ends up choosing:
Hisji Hisji Hisji Hisji 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.
The general consensus is that this story sucks, and it ruins the mood entirely. Everyone pairs off (there are four couples, plus Evan and Zoe, who like each other immediately) to continue the night. The pair have a soak in the hot tub before spying something mysterious in the distance. There is a human shape in the darkness with glowing eyes. I admit I paused and rewatched this scene several times—the shape is so faint (and my TV is not the best) I wasn’t sure if anything was actually there at all, but there is. And frankly, this terrified me. Shadowy figures are such a simple and easy way to begin to introduce your monster.
The Hisji is a sort of combination of folklore and creepypasta, with its main method of attack being to imitate. Soon the group is dealing with a situation akin to The Thing but with horny teenagers instead of bearded men in Antarctica. Since Evan has literally just met these people it works quite well. How can you trust someone you’ve only just met? Add to this everyone is inebriated and it’s fairly easy for the Hisji to mess with them before going in for the kill, which feels like exactly what it wants to do. There seems to be an extra person, always out of focus, and no one can remember who it is. A lot like one of my favourite creepypastas, The Goatman.
You might remember that the title of the poem is “Hisji” written five times, and this is how they’ve accidentally summoned it. The number five appears constantly after this scene, at first only in a few places like bottles arranged in a star, but soon it happens everywhere. I found myself actively looking out for these, and spotting some sneaky hidden things in the background in the process. I felt like much more of an active viewer than with other contemporary horror movies. You can figure out what’s going to happen beforehand, but watching the characters discover this for themselves is part of the fun. I started coming up with theories on how the Hisji worked. (I think after each kill, its power grows, and the increasing appearances of five items are a representation of this.) The monster is never fully explained, although Evan does attempt to do a bit of googling and finds cases of people who’ve disappeared in similar situations. He never googles “How do you get rid of a Hisji,” but I guess that’s a movies-vs-real-life thing.
The other thing about the Hisji is that it doesn’t kill you directly, it basically forces you into committing suicide. Zoe jumps off a rock in the desert, injuring her legs. She mentions that “it felt like there was a passenger inside my body.” Others deal with equally gruesome “self-inflicted” wounds as the night goes on. Some of this we’re shown, and some we just see the aftermath. I think this works well to not give too much away, but still bring home the loss of control steadily felt by the group. With the majority being on drugs (they had magic mushrooms at like 9 AM! breakfast of champions) the paranoia must be through the roof.
Head Count feels like a horror film in a similar vein to It Follows. A group of 20-somethings dealing with a creature beyond their understanding. I find a lot of people dismiss these types of horror plotlines (especially in the case of slashers), and I’m not sure why. Do we intrinsically believe we would do better, given the situation? We’re watching the events unfold from a safe barrier, disconnected by reality and knowledge of movie tropes. But if you were actually running for your life from Jason or a monster, I think you’d find that it’d be a little bit different. I know personally, I would have been the first to go. I’m a scaredy-cat, and when confronted with even a slightly stressful predicament, I freeze up entirely. The Hisji would have me gone in a second.
I also think part of the reason this film hasn’t done as well is that people have really weird high standards for horror in recent years. We need variety, though! If every movie was like Midsommar, you’d get bored of it. Sometimes you need something a bit smaller, something fun. (No shade on the more depressing horror, I like that too, but not all the time.) I gave this movie a chance based purely on a pretty poster, with the blues and yellows of the hot tub scene! And I’m glad I did. I hope you’ll give it a shot too.
Head Count is now streaming on Shudder. (Also available on Shudder Canada and Shudder UK.)