A group of students on vacation in the desert takes in a stranger who seemed like fun. Once the darkness falls, they start telling each other scary stories. One particular story is taken from the internet and involved an entity that likes to play with things in 5s. From then on, things start getting weird and scary.
Written by Elle Callahan and Michael Nader and directed by Callahan, Head Count takes a classic of horror cinema with students somewhat stranded in the middle of nowhere on vacation telling each other scary stories until things take a turn for the scary. Here the students are a group of friends where everyone is either dating another member of the group or has dated another member of the group to complicate the dynamics. This adds to the tension somewhat but mostly feels unnecessary as friends will have each other’s back naturally and jealousy is also something that often happens when there is a large group with different dynamics between each member. Here the couples’ thing was not entirely needed and feels like it was added either to up the drama or to try and bring in the non-horror teen girl audience, something that feels a bit unneeded here. The film doesn’t really go fully with the couples’ thing and being that they are students, just having friendships and loves would have been enough to complicate the connections. The rest of the film works fairly well with the whodunit aspect of the story being the strongest element at times and the what-ifs being something that seems to only distract from the main part of the film. The fear factor here comes from the unknown and once things become more known, it seems to break the tension more than anything. The unraveling of the mystery is more fun than seeing what has been causing everything itself. That being said, the process of getting to the finale is entertaining and done in a manner that uses all they have to create some tension and some feeling of fear at times.
The cast here is composed mainly of not-so-familiar faces and it works in the film’s advantage in that there are no pre-imposed expectations. The cast is fun to watch and some of them truly shine from the rest. Those are Ashleigh Morghan as Zoe and Isaac Jay as Evan who come in unattached to other characters and make the most of their time together. Their characters are the less established one in the bunch here and they thus get more of an arc to work with, giving them more meat to work with for their characters. Their performances show this and give their respective characters full personalities that are not just interchangeable future victims. They are the central characters and definitely the more entertaining ones to see evolve in the story and in the fearful situation they find themselves in. They are also the two characters the viewer should connect with the most and want them to make it out alive at the end. The rest of the cast is decent to very good with just a few scenes here and there that are a bit on the cringy side, but nothing too bad.
The film’s strongest point here is how they build tension and atmosphere with images and visual connections to the story told at the start. That is very well seen in the work by Bobby Guard in the art direction as there are subtle little things all over the house used as a set here and this attention to detail is something the viewer will want to pay attention too as there are some little details here that show a few hints of what might be coming. To frame all of this, cinematographer Sean Bagley makes the most of every source of light and dark, of every opening like doors and windows. The film takes these images and enhances them with editing by Nick Garnham Wright which takes the simple scenes into something visually dynamic.
Head Count is a good atmospheric scary film that knows it must build characters and situations before turning up the scare and trying to stress out its audience. Here the atmosphere works, the majority of the characters work well with each other and with the story, the story is fairly simple thus easy to follow, and the tension builds up until the reveal. Unfortunately, the reveal feels like it’s either not enough or perhaps not quite right. Something with that reveal felt off and that was a case of “too bad” as the rest of the film is fairly great.