My computer was supposed to be fixed and on its way back to me by now, but it still hasn’t left the repair center, so I remain limited in my ability to work. With the extra time, I’ve seen a few movies for the first time in ages. Having a toddler tends to make it hard to find long blocks of time to devote to movies. I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie theater. But I was struck by the contrast between two superficially quite similar films, Truth or Dare, a paint-by-numbers 2018 horror movie streaming on HBO this week, and Head Count, an independent horror thriller that just began streaming on Netflix after a very brief theatrical run this spring.
It goes without saying that most horror movies revolve around adolescents and young adults. It’s a weird cultural trope, born of cinema’s obsession with youth and beauty, though I imagine that it would be difficult to make a slasher movie about senior citizens. Just thinking about it brings up any number of hilarious outcomes, which is perhaps why the most memorable attempts are comedies. So, it was no surprise that the movies I saw on two consecutive nights this past week both revolve around that most standard of horror movie setups, the group of teen/twentysomething friends.
Truth or Dare—the major studio release officially titled (ridiculously) Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare to distinguish it from the independent copycat on Netflix—is a weak movie. It revolves around a group of college-age friends who let an outsider into their midst while on vacation in Mexico and suffer the consequences when he brings with him a supernatural entity that turns a game of “Truth or Dare” into a life-or-death battle, with fatal consequences. Similarly, Head Count revolves around a group of college-age friends who let an outsider joint their group while on vacation in Joshua Tree and suffer the consequences when he accidentally unleashes a supernatural entity that turns their drinking games into a fatal descent into madness and horror. Head Count, however, is a much stronger film.
The obvious problem with Truth or Dare is that the studio wanted it geared to the broadest possible audience, so the PG-13 film lacked the courage of its convictions and never quite rose to the level of spectacle needed to carry off so hackneyed a plot as “demon makes people do dares.” It was painfully obvious that everyone involved thought that the biggest selling point of the film was its star, Teen Wolf’s Tyler Posey, who was probably better when working with even less in the awful third season of Scream. He’s done much better work and was phoning it in here. With no major scares and nothing much to see, the film had to rely on cleverness to make something of itself, and the script lacked even the rudiments of wit, right down to its schlocky moralistic ending that made an unearned callback to a question posed at the start of the film and answered it in the most selfish way possible while asking the audience to praise the heroine for making that choice. Basically, I felt like I wasted the otherwise-unfilled time I spent sitting in the living room doing nothing watching this sorry excuse for a movie.
On the other hand, Head Count kept me interested even though, at a purely formal level, a lot less happened than in Truth or Dare. The setup is basically the same, but the execution was much more intriguing. Evan (Isaac W. Jay) arrives in the California desert for spring break to visit his dippy New Age older brother (Cooper Rowe), who takes him for a hike in an attempt to bond with his somewhat estranged sibling. While on the hike, Evan falls in with a group of nine young people, and they bond over drugs, booze, and pop culture. Evan leaves his brother to join the group at their rental house, with the hope of getting to know the group’s sole single woman, Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan) better. The group share internet ghost stories around a campfire, and Evan reads one out loud without vetting it first, which as you know from having seen a horror movie in the past twenty years, is a mistake. It concerns a “Hisji,” a vengeance demon.
More than half the movie is spent in the company of this group of college students before the real horror starts. Some critics found this meandering hour of group bonding to be boring, but the actors are charming, their bacchanalia relatively pleasant and true to what I remember of college, and there are just enough hints of something evil lurking around the edges to make interesting. Of course, I thought that the first half of Jeepers Creepers, before the stupid creature went on its ridiculous rampage, was a more magnetic and compelling story than the monster part. I tend to like the setup more than the payoff and the hints that let you imagine something more impressive than what gets delivered.
Director Elle Callahan does a masterful job of misdirection in keeping the exact nature of what is happening unclear until one spectacularly timed sequence in the middle of the film. Although it is not entirely original, the sequence in which the entity’s presence is revealed during a game of “Never Have I Ever” is so perfectly set up and executed, with split-second timing, that the entire success of the movie basically revolves around those 20-30 seconds. (You can read a breakdown of the scene with commentary from the director here, though the piece wrongly suggests that it was scary rather than uncanny.) Without that well-timed shock, the film would have been little more than Truth or Dare played at half-speed. Those few seconds are basically a short film in themselves but provide a feeling of the uncanny and come out of nowhere in a way that I found surprising and delightful—and I rarely get surprised by horror movies. Callahan uses the repeated rhythms of the various rounds of partying to lull the viewer into complacency, only to change direction on a dime and plunge the narrative into its final escalation toward the inevitable ending.
The movie’s greatest disappointment is that it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Once the characters start to realize what is going on, the movie makes the mistake of trying to explain the supernatural with recourse to hackneyed and stupid “rules” about what the entity can and can’t do and a bevy of supernatural powers that made me wonder why such a creature would spend so much time playing elaborate games if its purpose is—just like the demon in Truth or Dare—to possess people and make them kill themselves. (Some reviewers have claimed that the suicides are offensive, but it’s a horror movie, and death can only come in one of three forms: suicide, homicide, or accident.) The final coda of the movie, meant to suggest more than it says, plays like a cliché that the director didn’t quite understand. Ambiguity isn’t always your friend, and it wasn’t at all clear who did all the cleanup. Do monsters do housework? It might be worth summoning one if it does windows.
Ultimately, though, whether you enjoy Head Count depends on whether you like spending time with the characters and watching them wander around the desert partying and carrying on. If you find them annoying cardboard stereotypes, then the movie plays like a very long wait for a few minutes of gore. On the other hand, if you are in tune with the movie’s vibe and like the actors and the characters, then it’s a much more pleasant trip en route to the uncanny.
That said, stupid rule-based monsters need to die. The rules are ridiculous.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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