Unlikable characters. Bad decisions. Gloomy spaces. Throw them together and you have a recipe for an effective horror movie, at least of the kind that had its heyday in the 1980s, when audiences rooted for killers to butcher whole casts of teenage and twentysomething nuisances. If you’ve seen one of these films, you’ve seen most of them. Their formula was primal but effective: “Kids go to the woods, kids get dead.”
Writer-director Elle Callahan plays with that formula in her debut feature, Head Count, which opened in select theaters and popped up on VOD and digital platforms today. Set against the seemingly safe splendor of Joshua Tree in California, the film gathers 10 millennial-aged characters in a rental house for some carefree vacation festivities. But there’s an 11th in their midst: The Hisji, a malicious shapeshifting entity inadvertently summoned at the start of the film by Evan (Isaac Jay). Evan, who begins seeing doubles of his friends everywhere, slowly starts to suspect that the Hisji isn’t a harmless creepypasta after all. His pals think he’s a major buzzkill... that is, until about 45 minutes into the film, when a casual game of “Never Have I Ever” goes fearfully awry.
Callahan’s method for shooting this pivotal scene is deceptively simple: Her camera, planted on a table, slowly pans back and forth across the assembled players, each asking questions to embarrass the others. The lens drifts from Evan and his crush, Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), past Camille (Bevin Bru) and Tori (Tory Freeth), to gentleman drug connoisseur Nico (Hunter Peterson) and Sam (Michael Herman), before stopping on Vanessa (Chelcie May) and restarting the rotation in reverse. Two minutes elapse. The camera completes a rotation, halting on Sam and Nico; the living room doorway provides a dividing line between them, with Sam crammed into frame left and Nico crammed into frame right, together serving as the image’s joint focal point.
“All right,” Nico declares. “Sam, master of bullshit: You’re up.” Sam laughs, then stares askance at Nico; the camera remains stock still. Then the rack focus suddenly shifts to show a second, very puzzled Sam poking his head into the room, bursting in on the scene’s breezy conviviality. The lights abruptly go out.
“Personally,” says Callahan in a conversation with The A.V. Club, “I think what makes a good scare is kind of diverting your audience’s attention, and then surprising them in another way.” In this particular scene, that means filming the action in one shot, and using the camera as a tool to lull her viewers into a sense of comfort and security. This effectively puts the audience at the table with these characters as they play the game, chattering over one another and drinking. “You start to get pulled into their world, and you’re not really expecting that a scare is going to come,” she continues. “There’s music playing, and you’re not in a scary sequence. You’re not approaching a locked door. You’re not going down into a spooky basement. You’re literally with them having fun.”
Callahan’s tinkering with horror’s expectations was designed to throw off not just the audience but also the cast; she kept her actors in dark, just as Ridley Scott reportedly did on the set of Alien while shooting the iconic chest-buster scene. “I like to keep them on their toes as much as possible,” she reveals. “For that scene, when we shot it, we had to do a bunch of different takes. It takes a lot to get it right, especially when you don’t have room in editing to finesse it.” That meant letting her actors improvise and riff without knowing exactly when the lights would cut out. Just like the viewer, they slip into comfort. The atmosphere relaxes around them.
As soon as the room goes dark, that atmosphere shifts. The ensemble bickers and panics. Sam is accused of lying. Nico is accused of spiking people’s drinks with shrooms. Good times turn into a bad trip. Sam, Evan, and Max (Billy Meade) survey the house, room by room, looking for their uninvited guest. Here, Head Count entertains the familiar horror convention of characters poking into dark rooms while the monster stalks them—not that they’d recognize it if they saw it. The familiarity underscores what’s unique about Callahan’s philosophy on constructing frights: She prefers scaring people when they can actually see what’s scaring them.
“I tried to do a lot of my scares in scenes that are lit well,” Callahan explains. “So in that scene all the lights are on and it’s very colorful.” She references another moment in Head Count that takes place before the “Never Have I Ever” sequence, where Evan and the gang go for a hike and Zoe takes a nosedive off of a cliff. It isn’t an accident. She isn’t pushed by anyone. She just jumps straight down, to her friends’ collective terror. She survives, but is badly injured. What’s really scary is that there’s undeniable paranormal activity happening in broad daylight. “I tried to do as many scares as possible during the day,” Callahan notes, “because I think we’re conditioned to expect them to be at night and in the dark.” Day or night, no space is safe when the monster camouflages itself as you and your friends.
Head Count’s “Never Have I Ever” sequence—very different from the one involving the same game in a different horror movie, 2014’s Unfriended—strikes a chord by violating sanctuary. Characters fare better in horror when they stick together. Characters fare better in horror when they stick together. Here, the opposite is true. Not that the genre should do away with all its traditional scare tactics. Even in 2019, the era of so-called elevated horror, there’s still a visceral thrill watching characters walk face-first into peril. “I still enjoy that, but I enjoy being caught off guard more,” Callahan says. “I think the horror genre is evolving and turning a lot of tropes on their ear.” But she sees value in some of those old devices, too. “It’s fun, expanding and growing and finding new ways to move on from those traditions. But still I think we should keep them around.”
Said techniques should get plenty of workout this summer. The Child’s Play reboot hits theaters next week, while the following brings Annabelle Comes Home, the seventh entry in the Conjuring franchise. They will almost surely play to the “don’t go in the basement” style of horror. Head Count, which has arrived ahead of both, makes a refreshing alternative, a mix of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and John Carpenter’s The Thing. When nobody is who they seem, paranoia takes root in the mind. Evil dolls are fitting horror antagonists, but uncertainty is its own monster.