Set amidst the beautifully desolate scenery of the Joshua Tree desert, Head Count is a suspenseful slow burn that delves into folklore and urban legends through a threatening presence that hints toward the uncanny valley. Elle Callahan is able to create a meticulous feeling of impending dread in her debut full-length feature film, which showcases her promise as a filmmaker as she navigates representing ancient Native American legends crossed with stereotypical millennial culture.

“A Hisji is a vengeful thing.
Five times its name you never sing.
With skin pale white and eyes of green.
It’s something you’ve already seen…”


Head Count 2018


These two rhyming couplets echo that of a nursery rhyme, something usually associated with the warmth and innocence of childhood, yet in Head Count, these four lines symbolise the direct antithesis. Callahan has taken inspiration from the sinister and unsettling Native American demonic spirit known as the Skin Walker. A name so fearful that those who believe in it don’t dare to utter it out loud. Much of the same attitude towards Skin Walkers has been weaved throughout Head Count, creating a suffocating blanket of suspense and a gnawing feeling of foreboding as the film progresses. 

Evan is visiting his brother, Peyton, who lives nearby to Joshua Tree. From the offset, their relationship feels strained and fragmented, however they decide to set off on a hike in order to get some much-needed bonding time. On their travels, Evan forms a connection with a group of hikers and in particular with Zoe, the only single woman out of the group of eight she’s with. They appear to hit it off and Evan is invited back to their rented house, which just so happens to be extremely isolated. Much to the chagrin of his brother, Evan decides to take the jump and spend the night with his newly acquainted friends. They spend a night together drinking and eventually decide to share scary stories. When Evan reads one out from about the Hisji, the group unwittingly release the spirit of a malicious demon who will stop at nothing to gain what it wants: them.


Head Count 2021 Review
Foreshadowing and clues included in the film, the words ‘Skin’ and ‘Walker’ on beer bottles, and a hand holding up five fingers.

An array of camera shots are used with great effect, most notably when the haunting Joshua Tree desert is taken advantage of, and when the group is playing drinking games together. Exaggerated long shots are used to portray the isolation of the group from society, and the isolation of Evan within the group. Confusion and unease are created when the camera pans forwards and backwards to each of the characters when they’re sat in a circle, the sharp change from the usual static shots aims to unsettle the viewer and reflect the mounting chaos that the Hisji brings.

Hisji. Hisji. Hisji. Hisji. Hisji. Don’t dare to utter its name five times! The spirit is shown to be a malignant force, slowly turning the group against each other, encroaching upon each characters’ psyche and convincing them that they’re gradually losing their grip on reality. Its duplicitous intentions and ability to transform into any character is deeply unsettling, in part to the uncanny nuances that appear when it transforms into the visage of its next victim. The Uncanny is “the psychological experience of something as not simply mysterious, but creepy, often in a strangely familiar way.” This is exemplified through the harrowing shots of the Hisji’s luminescent glowing eyes and dead pan stare that pierces through your soul. Callahan cites ‘It Follows’ and ‘The Witch’ as her inspiration for the slow-burn atmosphere she creates, and for the most part she is wildly successful. The first two acts of the film create a mounting sense of unease which is ramped up during the third act. However, I feel as though any tension that was created is diluted with the use of amateurish CGI to show the ‘real’ form of the Hisji. 

Head Count is an enjoyable and genuinely ominous movie that doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares or an extreme amount of gore. It follows a format that all horror fanatics know and love but manages to keep it exciting and fresh enough to feel completely original! If you’re in need of an unnerving psychological horror, this is the one for you. Just one word of advice: don’t watch this with other people, you never know who (or what) they might be.

Head Count had its Shudder premier in 2021. If you also have any interest in a free trial of Shudder, too, we have an extended trial available to our readers:

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