So, as you all know (or those of you who regularly read the reviews and comments on W2R) I was not a fan of Ari Aster’s recent film, Midsommar. I won’t get into why I was not a fan of that film (as there are just so many reasons) but I wanted to bring it up is so that we can talk about the new film that I am looking at today: Head Count.

Head Count follows a group of teenagers who unknowingly summon a paranormal presence during their weekend trip to the Joshua Tree National Park which then begins to hunt them one-by-one.

Now, I know you might be asking: But Reals, if you disliked Midsommar so much, why are you watching a movie with such a similar plot, tone and aesthetic style? 

That is a great question, reader, and no, the answer is not that I’m a glutton for punishment or that I enjoy trashing films (or subjecting myself to trashy films, for that matter) but that I thought there were so many missed opportunities for Midsommar to deliver a really cool, unique horror experience and I wanted to support an independent filmmaker trying to capture something similar.

So, how did this one fair?

(Note: I did go into this one with little to no expectations. I feel like I have to mention that because that may change the way I reacted to the film and how much I enjoyed it.)

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The film starts with a little poem about a creature called the HISJI – I didn’t know this entity, but that is because the director made it up for the film. I am actually on board with this, however, it seems like if you are using the Joshua Tree National Park (a real location) then it might make more sense to use an actual creature or spirit that has been reported around that area. Maybe that is just me, but It was something I thought of.

We open with our main character, Evan, dropping some of his friends off for a cruise that he was not invited to or could not afford, it is never really made clear. I think this is another issue – if he wasn’t invited or was too poor or something, then we might really sympathize with him. I think we are supposed to assume that he felt obligated to hang out with his older brother, but since it is so vague, I feel like we could have really used this as a Save the Cat Moment or a character-building scene.

Anyway, after dropping his friends off, Evan heads over to see his estranged brother who lives in a trailer in the middle of nowhere.

Honestly, this would have been enough of a setup for an interesting contained horror feature – where something is either really wrong with his brother or something has taken/harmed his brother and is then coming for Evan. You could do this with only one or two actors and could film it in just one or two locations. Always try to think about how you can elevate your concept and, if you can do it in a contained way, that’s even better!

Once Evan meets his brother (who is a hippie) they go hiking in the Joshua Tree Park. This did give us a nice character moment where we get to see the brothers interact.

On their hike, they stumble across another group of people (essentially just our warm bodies who are going to get picked off) and we don’t spend too much time with them, which is good, as they are unimportant.

There is a girl in the group named Zoe who Evan flirts with – this goes on far too long and felt forced, but at least it gives Evan a reason to follow Zoe and her friends to a rented house where they can start to get killed.

Public service announcement: joining a random group of people that you just met in the middle of nowhere with no backup plan or information about them, where they came from, or what they want can never end well – at best, you’ll accidentally kill a stripper or one of your friends will overdose and you’ll have to cover the death/murder up – at worst, the group you joined are cannibals and you are their next meal. Just saying.

Then they play a game around the campfire where they tell scary stories – pretty standard – except Evan can’t think of one, so he goes to (not sure if that is a real site or not and I’m not going to look it up) and reads a random story from the site. 

To clarify, it’s less of a story and more of a summoning of a demon. Which seems weird that, when looking for a scary story, you pick a weird spell and, instead of looking at it and just choosing something else, you decide to read it out loud.

Can you guess what happens next?

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If you guessed “An extremely long and awkward hot tub scene where Evan and Zoe painfully flirt” – you got it!

However, then creepy stuff begins happening – a strange man is seen standing out in the middle of the desert in the dark just watching their party. Then, the group has a few other suspicious encounters until things really go off the rails in the third act.

It is pretty standard stuff, but there were things to like here, such as:

Interesting Location – Apparently, the Joshua Tree National Park is, in reality, a pretty haunted place. I didn’t know this and was a little disappointed in my own paranormal knowledge, having come from a family of paranormal and cryptid enthusiasts. Regardless, this does make for a unique setting, as it is a real place and a really haunted place (if you believe the stories) so there is plenty of fun to be had with this concept in this setting.

I do wish they had done more with it, as most of the action takes place in a standard house/condo, but I respect the idea.

Cast of Unknowns – This actually plays to the film’s benefit, I believe, because when I saw Will Poulter in Midsommar, I couldn’t help but think of that scene from We’re the Millers where he gets bit on the genitals by a tarantula (That scene is below for those of you who haven’t yet had the chance to experience this moment of cinematic greatness) which sort of took me out of it.

(Note: By the way, that sounds like I’m giving We’re the Millers or Will Poulter grief, I am not at all. We’re the Millers is hilarious and Will Poulter is great in it – it’s just that he now a recognizable face from some of his other work and so seeing him in Midsommar sort of took me out of the somber, dark ambiance the film was trying to set.)

Doppelganger Angle – We have seen this done before (most recently in Jordan Peele’s Us) but it can still be effective and chilling if done right.

It also reminded me a little bit of the criminally under-seen movie Coherence, which was a pretty cool psychological thriller/horror. Check it out if you haven’t seen it!

Well Directed – This is very competently directed – especially the horror scenes where the tension is built slowly and steadily without resorting to jump-scares or predictable moments. I am excited to see what this director – Elle Callahan – does next.

Creepy Moments – There are some pretty creepy/uncomfortable moments. Like when Evan walks past a girl in the kitchen and heads outside where everyone is waiting. He mentions that they are missing someone, since he just saw the blonde girl (I think her name was Camille) inside. Then, the car door is opened and Camille says she has been there the whole time.

Or the fact that they keep hearing shotgun blasts while out on their hike, but don’t know where the shots are coming from or who is shooting. 

(This never goes anywhere which is a shame as it provides a sort of dread and tension from the knowledge that at any time they could be shot – intentionally or accidentally – by the mysterious hunter.)

Or, when a character jumps off of a cliff without warning about halfway through the film. It is while two other characters are having a discussion and is one of our “calm moments” in a horror film, but then we are snapped right back into the horror.

Sure, these aren’t groundbreaking, per-say, but at the same time, they are effective and adding moments like these help build the atmosphere and tension in your horror story.

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There are lots of things to like about this film, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also mention some of the film’s shortcomings, such as:

One-Dimensional Characters – No, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of character development, but we hardly have any at all for Evan or for Zoe (arguably our protagonists in this film)

We know that Evan:

  1. Goes to college
  2. Has never had sex
  3. Has some issues with his brother

Other than that, we don’t get a lot of reason to root for him or to care what happens to him.

With Zoe, we learn:

  1. She likes to take photos
  2. She giggles when things get awkward

And the rest of the friends are disposable cookie-cutter bodies to be killed off.

Evan’s Brother – With Evan’s brother (Peyton, according to IMDB) I feel like they really missed a play. He is a bit strange and leaves Evan with the group of teens, only stopping by after a day or so to check in.

Though it’s pretty clear early on that there is something pretty creepy and otherworldly happening, I feel like they could have done more with this Peyton character. Maybe hinted that he was the one behind a lot of what was going on or leave it ambiguous as to what actually happened.

As it is, “Dick Friend” (the douche teen who seems to have it out for Evan because Zoe is his ex and Evan is now into Zoe) suggests that maybe Peyton is responsible for what is going on, but we have seen enough by that point to know that’s pretty impossible and doesn’t even really make sense as to why he would be hunting or stalking the group.

Peyton also just disappears from the story after the midpoint and really never has anything much to do in the film.

HISJI – It is not until 57 minutes into the one hour and twenty nine minute film that Evan (or anyone for that matter) thinks of the HISJI.

Now, honestly, reading the poem/spell out at the campfire was such a quick moment, the teens were all drunk and there is no specific reason to think it was anything, so that didn’t bother me that no one immediately thought of it, but from a storytelling perspective, this is your primary monster/entity/spirit that is causing everything, so some more build-up would have been nice.

Oh, and Evan just gets on the house computer and Googles everything about the monster – there is a better way to give this information – just put some effort into it.

Also, even after researching everything and “figuring it out” Evan doesn’t actually put anything together until one hour and seven minutes into the film – so it takes far too long for us to get to the point we need to.

Plus, if you are going to create a creature/monster/spirit then you are responsible for setting up the rules for this thing: Why is it like this? What does it want? How can you beat it? 

The film is less interested in establishing rules for the monster and instead just satisfies itself with by letting creepy stuff happen without any real backstory or explanation.

Also, when you finally get the reveal of the creature, it’s pretty goofy looking. Kind of like one of the little grey aliens from early UFO lore. They didn’t need this at all – just show us the bodies of the doppelgangers and you don’t have to get a goofy monster suit or use CGI – plus, it would totally make sense in context.

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This one was right on the verge of a RENT IT from me, but because of some poor writing and little to no explanation being given for anything that happens or for the creature hunting the characters, I have to give this one a SKIP IT.

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