While most horror movies settle for the usual slasher thrills, recent indie breakouts like “It Follows” and “Hereditary” have reminded that there are few things more pleasurably creepy than outré psychological horror in a credibly ordinary setting. Elle Callahan’s directorial debut feature “Head Count” is another intriguing mindbender in which 10 collegiate types find themselves under insidious assault by a vicious mythological entity. Samuel Goldwyn is releasing it to a sole hardtop — L.A.’s Arena Cinelounge — this Friday, which seems unfair, given the amount of pedestrian genre fodder that gets a better shake week after week. It will no doubt find its real audience in simultaneous home-format release.
Evan (Isaac W. Jay) is a college student spending his break visiting older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), a reclusive New Agey type living in a trailer near Joshua Tree National Park. It’s an awkward sibling relationship whose weekend bonding is interrupted when Evan accepts an offer to get stoned with a group of young vacationers including the very attractive Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), with whom he strikes sparks. Straight-edge Peyton reluctantly lets his little brother pursue this lucky break to the other party’s rental house, where tequila shots and campfire ghost stories ensue.
When it’s Evan’s turn to provide one such spooky tale, he reads a cryptic poem found on a website about the “Hisji,” a mythological “vengeful thing.” No one is impressed. But at the 20-minute mark, just when he and Zoe are getting frisky in the hot tub, they get their first sign that the Hisji may, indeed be a thing. And like “The Thing,” it proves a shape-shifting malevolent entity that methodically invades everyone here — although there are no tentacles or inside-out bodies here.
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“Head Count” is a trickster film in which reality becomes increasingly debatable. Callahan has a real knack for creating an unsettled atmosphere — it’s already there in the movie’s very first shot, long before anything “happens” — and Michael Nader’s screenplay is very sharp about keeping its cards close to the vest. It’s not until just past the halfway point that the protagonists realize they may be experiencing … impersonators, of themselves, a discovery that naturally induces much paranoia, disbelief and eventual escalating violence.
This is all a lot more interesting than some guy in a mask running around with a kitchen knife. Though not at all comedic like the “Happy Death Day” films, “Head Count” similarly plays with narrative perception in clever ways. It’s an admirably disciplined film with committed performances by actors playing characters more complicated than the usual horror casualty list. (Bevin Bru is especially good as Camille, who at first appears to be a frivolous party girl, but turns out to be the steadiest rock here.) Still, fans of more conventional horror may be disappointed — there’s not a lot of standard bloody payoff here, and the fade-out may be a little too subtle for its own good.
Among the generally astute tech and design contributions, a special shout-out goes to Hannah Parrott, whose original score suggests a spectral presence from the get-go.