First of all, great title. If you’re going to round up a bunch of young people — college coeds, stoners and frat bros — for a “dead teenager movie,” you’re going to need to do a “Head Count.”
The rules of “dead teenager movies” being what they are, frequent head counts are in order. I mean, if they’re picked off, in classic Poe and Agatha Christie style by whatever killer or evil is attacking them, we want a running tally of “Who’s left?” and “Who’s NEXT?”
Great setting, too. “Head Count” takes place in Joshua Tree, California, one of the most beautiful, iconic deserts in America. Tourist friendly, too. College kids rent a house here for spring break?
“Anybody wanna do some SHROOMs for breakfast?”
It’s a natural.
But Elle Callahan’s film upends the “types” and “tropes” of such movies by making the menace familiar. It’s the person sitting next to you, two thirds wasted, during a game of “Never have I ever,” the gal you’re sweet on and sidling up to when the call goes out, “Who’s ready for some SHOTS?”
There is no “one by one” order. Something is slipping in under a familiar guise and spooking this group of ten. Somebody’d better figure it out before it’s too late.
Those are novel twists. It’s just that the movie, which manages some early chills, fails that most basic horrof picture test. It isn’t scary.
Evan (Isaac Jay) isn’t headed to Mexican beaches or Daytona for spring break. He’s off to stay with his wastrel, wandering “free spirit” brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), who lives, meditates and hikes on the edge of the Joshua Tree National Monument.
Peyton’s the guy who never returns a call, never answers his phone and is lost in his own head. Fun vacation.
Well, it is once the brothers are out hiking and stumble into nine college kids on a boulder-top bender. That’s over-selling it a bit. They’re just…mellow.
“You wanna smoke with us?”
Camille (Bevin Bru) is just looking out for her girl Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a photographer who likes keeping this Evan fellow in the frame.
First surprise of the picture, the “responsible” college boy younger brother says “Yes.” Peyton?
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
The invitation to follow them back to their rented hacienda includes tequila. Peyton? “Thanks, but I don’t drink, either.”
Thus does “Oh, this guy’s a Joshua Tree stoner/dropout” expectation get upened. and Peyton will avoid the horrors that await the others, including his brother.
The booze, mushrooms and weed aren’t the issue, though they don’t help. It’s the Internet ghost stories they share around a campfire, the “shapeshifter” Evan mentions and probably shouldn’t — out loud.
The threat makes itself known with the usual “What was that?” Somebody saw something, Somebody heard something. You know the drill.
Callahan, who also came up with the story, treats us to chilling tracking shots, glimpses of the body whose point of view we are seeing the house and its out-buildings from in the dark. Photo bombs let us see what Evan sees. He doesn’t know everybidy there, but there’s an extra blonde in that background, in this doorway.
If he doesn’t get around to taking a “Head Count,” and quick, he’ll never ID the threat, get the others to heed his warnings and make up with his brother.
Because whatever else this kid is, he flunks the Good Brother Test, repeatedly. And the Potential Boyfriend Test, too.
The performances are indifferent, with only a couple of these “Ten Little Indians” in this gathering (Bru, Billy Meade and Hunter Peterson) making an impression, standing out from the crowd.
The dialogue is indifferent, but the plot intriguing.
It’s just that Callahan, a sound designer turned director, broke one horror “rule” too many in this rule-bending genre pic. The menace you believe in without seeing is much scarier than the one a modest-budget thriller can cook up to show us — in the flesh.
Yeah, “Head Count” loses its head in the third act.
Whatever promise it had is long gone by then (there’s little urgency among the stoners, the threat seems more existential than real). And in a crowd of characters we have zero time to develop empathy for (like their director, they’re all beautiful), when the Big Moment comes, the only sane response is “Who cares?”
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, blood, substance abuse, profanity
Cast: Isaac Jay, Ashleigh Morghan, Bevin Bru, Billy Meade, Chelcie May, Amaka Obiechie, Hunter Peterson, Tory Freeth, Michael Herman, Sam Marra and Cooper Rowe
Credits: Directed by Elle Callahan, script by Michael Nader based on an Elle Callahan story. A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:30