It’s sad that in 2019, it’s still rare enough for a black woman to be the primary love interest in a “non-black” horror movie that when it happens, it’s noteworthy. Leading black male love interests aren’t particularly common either, but black guys at least seem to get more supporting cast-level interracial love interest roles, like Robert “Put Some Apostrophe on My Name” Ri’chard in House of Wax. I suppose Trey “Put Some Zs on my Name” Songz was technically the lead love interest in Texas Chainsaw, but — spoiler alert — he wasn’t exactly the heroic, root-for-him type, so he didn’t stick around for long.
Emayatzy Corinealdi in The Invitation aside, black female characters more often fall into the type epitomized by Kelly Rowland in Freddy vs. Jason: the desexualized best friend who’s happy to be the third wheel facilitating the white lead’s happiness and who might throw in a “motherfucker” or two (or worse, in the case of Rowland’s cringe-worthy final scene in FvJ) to establish the fact that she doesn’t take any shit.
And so I was pleased to see that in Head Count, white male lead Evan (Isaac Jay) is immediately drawn to black girl Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan) upon meeting her on a getaway to Joshua Tree. Lucky for him, Zoe is the lone single member of her nine-person party, and they hit it off so well that he ends up ditching his brother and tagging along with her group for their festivities during a break from college.
As kids are apt to do in horror movies, however, they play a game that inadvertently conjures a supernatural being called a Hisji, and while it’s bad news for them, this is where the fun starts for us. You see, the Hisji is a shapeshifter, and it can mimic people with uncanny precision, so without them realizing it, the party of 10 becomes a party of 11. Because the partygoers are typically scattered across different rooms in their rented house, they don’t even notice the extra guest, who takes on the form of various members of the group in an effort to manipulate them for its deadly end.
It’s a marvelous setup for a horror movie that mines the sort of creature-in-plain-sight paranoia of classics like The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Follows. Head Count clearly didn’t have the resources to craft the dazzling effects of The Thing, though, so for most of the film, it smartly takes a page from It Follows’ playbook and doesn’t show the monster…until it does — which, albeit brief, is the film’s only major misstep, because A) the effects are horrendous and B) the concept is strong enough that we simply don’t need to see the damn thing. It’s much creepier just knowing that one of the group is not who they seem to be.
That miscalculation aside, writer-director Elle Callahan hits it out of the park in her feature film debut, a declaration of her arrival as a storytelling talent and an emphatic reminder that female horror filmmakers, when given a chance, can scare the shit out of us just as much as the guys.
Callahan makes deft use of extended shots to draw you into the scenes of casual partying (including Evan and Zoe’s sweet, awkward romance), lending a false sense of security before yanking the rug out from under you. She clearly has a ball toying with us, delivering juicy, out-of-nowhere scares and moments that make us question — along with the characters — if we just saw what we thought we saw, all the while feeding our growing unease. It’s a quiet, unassuming film that sneaks up on you, much like the Hisji itself.
It thus takes some patience (although Evan and Zoe are likable, they’re not exactly electric personalities), but the longer you stick with Head Count, the more you become immersed in what should be remembered as one of the best horror movies of 2019.