[Overlook Film Fest] Review: Embracing Modern Day Campfire Stories, HEAD COUNT Is A Cerebral Bout of Millennial Creepypasta

I love tall tales. I’m fascinated by urban legends, myths, folklore, and the further we advance in the world of technology and science, it seems these stories become more and more easily dispelled. I often worried that the “campfire” tale was dying. Then the internet gave birth and rise to the “creepypasta.” Scary stories for the kids who grew up online. In recent years, they’ve had a cultural impact, with the terrifying real murders based around the myth of the Slender Man and pop culture has also used these writings to create fantastical stories seen in programs like Channel Zero and movies like Mercy Black.

Evan meets a group of kids out in Joshua Tree while visiting his brother. He ends up spending the weekend with them, a group of true millennial hipsters which each stereotype neatly in play, partying in the middle of the desert. When he’s tasked with telling a scary story around a fire one night, he reads straight from a creepy pasta page, and while the story seems meaningless and trite, it unleashes a dangerous entity that starts to prey on the kids.

This is Elle Callahan’s debut feature but it’s clear to see that she has taken notes from contemporary stalwarts such as It Follows, utilizing a “less is more” approach and allowing the viewer to find the horror before the characters do. Callahan makes a smart move by essentially setting us up in a traditional slasher setting, numerous teens partying in a house in an isolated setting, but instead slowly unravels a creature more akin to The Thing than Freddy Kreuger. While sticking to the prototype of teen scream fare, it allows the viewer to slip into a sense of comfortability, suggesting that we may know where the story is headed before throw it’s first curveball and it will have you hitting rewind to ensure that your own mind isn’t playing tricks on you.

Lots of horror films definitely play around the idea of being gaslighted, whether by people or supernatural forces, and that’s exactly what Head Count employs…for a while. Callahan, in tandem with screenwriter Michael Nader, know exactly how long to play that card before showing their hand, cluing the characters into what is actually at hand and then the real mayhem begins. It’s fun to see the build up and Callahan and cinematographer Mark Bagley are sly enough with the camera to send your head spinning.

The leads of the film aren’t particularly interesting, once again toying with the idea of slasher tropes, but that’s not what makes the film entertaining. It’s the ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride that will have you eagerly anticipating the next time the movie wants to mess with you, the creature isn’t just toying with these teens, it’s toying with us. You’re never quite sure what will happen next because you can’t quite trust anyone. The crew does a lot with a little and it’s a tight, smart script. While the characters are definitely lacking in any sort of depth, we don’t need to know them, instead we want to see them played with. Their is some true shock to be seen but, likely due to budgetary restraints, the camera often pans away before we can indulge in any blood spilling. It’s not always a bad thing but occasionally you’ll be looking for more.

All that said, Head Count is an impressive debut. Elle Callahan has crafted a minimalist, modern age ghost story that should be told in hushed whispers around the campfire.