REVIEW & CONTEST! ekm Has Seen HEAD COUNT and Wants To Give You The Chance To See It, Too!
Social media remains ground zero for public shaming; just ask Jason Blum. When asked why his Blumhouse Productions remains conspicuous in its lack of female directors, his response was a somewhat ill-advised, misinformed statistic on the number willing and able to embrace such an opportunity. You want a scary Halloween? Jason Blum got himself one in October of 2018, and whether his comment was one that warrants backlash or not is likely dependent upon whether or not you wear flip-flops and drink craft beer, Brah.
It is a fact, however, that female voices have been the minority in Horror, unless they’re screaming as they run from whatever undead serial killer is pursuing them. The authorial mark is largely a paternal one. As such, this typically means that any gender-led deviation from the norm results in something very different (THE BABADOOK), very insightful (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE), or very unfortunate (FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE).
In this case, we have HEAD COUNT, directed by Elle Callahan in her first feature. Considering that Horror has always had a fanbase most loudly made up of teenage boys, all of whom are expecting very specific things (i.e. tits and blood, to use the vernacular), one can almost imagine a pimply 13 year-old* recoiling in genuine terror at the prospect of some Dumb Lady coming along and changing scarlet to pink, and monsters into unicorns. Then again, teenagers are idiots, and we watch these sorts of films to see teenagers die, so there you go, America.
Right out the gate, any assumptions here are proven correct, and also totally wrong. YES: There are subversions of typical genre conventions, and these subversions are likely the result of a feminine perspective. NO: The lady behind the camera isn’t breaking your toys, dude. HEAD COUNT is a fun and fresh spin on familiar ideas. Callahan plays with what we think we ought to expect, while also giving us exactly what we want from a movie about a group of teenagers who are stalked by a malevolent spirit during a weekend trip to the Joshua Tree.
Blah blah blah, you say. You want examples. Okay — our point of focus isn’t a Final Girl, but rather a Final Boy (Isaac Jay), and one who’s willing to panic, and even cry. This doesn’t sound like much until you stop to think that nearly every film involving isolated, debauched kids being systematically killed off by a supernatural presence, has featured a female protagonist. This creates a very specific dynamic not only between our Hero(ine) and our (generally) male Adversary, but between the narrative and its Director. Callahan knows the formula, but the Puritanical tone has shifted into something more contemporaneous, and therefore less a case of punishing the ladies for leading its male characters astray.
Likewise, the notion of our POV character’s interracial relationship feels positively progressive in a film that consciously evokes so many familiar themes. Featuring an African American love interest (Ashleigh Morghan) feels intentional, and completely welcome; relationships of this sort are usually frowned upon by murderous entities, and dealt with swiftly. While HEAD COUNT isn’t a Slasher, it still functions using a narrative framework that is usually associated with that subgenre, and forms the skeleton most Horror storytellers dress in scary outfits. As such, it’s necessary to remember that these flicks — even the ones that involve the metaphysical (NIGHTMARE ON ELMS STREET, et al.) rather than dudes in hockey masks — function best as morality tales. The most interesting aspect becomes the era of the film’s production, and what the social norms say about that specific period.
But fear not! All the stuff you want is there to be enjoyed. Jump scares! Psych outs! Scary mythology! Teenagers who deserve to die by virtue of excess! While this last point may be slow in coming even for a 90-minute film, there is a welcome ramping of mood and atmosphere that makes this feel closer in tone to THE RING than, say, WISHMASTER. This mounting tension is the film’s defining attribute, though younger viewers might find the preference for creepiness rather than graphic kills a slow burn. Be warned: this is a story about characters in a scary situation, not simply the way the characters die, and the final act is worth the wait.
If there’s one complaint, it’s that a two-minute sequence, right at the hour mark, is the movie I really want to see. Our hero does the obligatory Google search for clues, and discovers the story of a young girl who died in a supernatural incident not unlike the one we are seeing play out for our group of desert-partying college kids. Perhaps this is the bane of the genre as a whole: the way in which genuinely scary ideas work best in bites, and are allowed to bloom once swallowed. There’s a reason why a good urban legend can be effectively told by fifth-graders at a slumber party.
Want to see HEAD COUNT for yourself, and decide whether you agree with my take, or think I’m an obnoxious Social Justice Warrior with a militant agenda? On behalf of Samuel Goldwyn Films, I’m offering two of you the opportunity to do so, free of charge. Here’s the challenge: pitch me, in three sentences or less, a new take on familiar Horror conventions. Gender, race, whatever. Post your concept/idea in the Talkback below, and I’ll award the two winners their own copies of HEAD COUNT. If you’re lucky, I’ll steal it, and use it for my next film without awarding any credit or royalties. After all, isn’t that more or less how the Slasher boom started, in the wake of HALLOWEEN…?
Contest deadline is Friday — post your concept now!
*And a lot of grown men, too.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)