Elle Callahan’s feature debut, Head Count, is a sneaking, creeping, paranoia-infused cautionary tale about the dangers of accidentally invoking a mythical monster. But rather than tucking in to the tropes of the villains we know, Callahan created her own monster – the Hisji – with its own unique and unsettling lore.
The film follows a group of teenagers on a weekend trip to the Joshua Tree desert who “find themselves under mental and physical assault from a supernatural entity that mimics their appearances as it completes an ancient ritual”.
While it’s not quite the fun-filled weekend that these kids had in mind, this does create a compelling experience for the viewer as we watch their comfortable confidence slowly burn away, giving in to a frantic finale.
I recently spoke with director Elle Callahan about Head Count, her monster, and the naturally unnerving landscape of the desert.
Kelly McNeely: In Head Count, I loved that fantastically creepy lore around this mysterious monster, the Hisji. I want to know, how did you build that lore, and where did the idea for that creature come from?
Elle Callahan: Well, I’m a big fan of folklore. I grew up in New England and it’s a big part of our culture – we have a lot of history there. I wanted to create my own original monster, so I kind of meshed together creatures that I’ve always been scared of; a skinwalker, a wendigo, and some aspects of witchcraft. So I meshed those together to get the history. The shapeshifting element has always been really scary to me, because it’s, um –
Kelly: It’s that paranoia, right?
Elle: Yes! Exactly. It plays on your trust and makes you paranoid in a reality that you think you can control. In terms of its physical form, I kind of designed the unmoving and unblinking eyes of an owl with a kind of very stretched-out figure that comes from my own nightmares.
Kelly: Did you do the creature design yourself, or was it more of a collaborative process?
Elle: I collaborated with a few people, but it came from – the original sketch – came from my very poorly drawn rendering of it [laughs] and then we kind of built it from there. The monster itself was physically built by Josh and Sierra Russell of Russell FX.
Kelly: There’s some really cool stylistic choices in Head Count, particularly when those twists are being revealed, when you’re gradually figuring out that shapeshifting ability that the Hisji has. What films or stories inspired or influenced you when making the film?
Elle: The big ones for me were the films It Follows and The Witch, which are more recent. They really play on the slow build… more of a creep than a scare. They were very haunting to me. Those films really excited me because, you know, they really took their time, and I wanted to take my time with mine as well.
I wanted to create scares that were more lasting and that my audience would think about. The last scene in It Follows still bothers me – same with The Witch. I’m still thinking about them! So I wanted to create moments that my audience would still ponder, rather than just get startled and recover from.
I mean, there are still some scares in the movie, but the haunt was more important to me [laughs]. I wanted to creep my audience out rather than just plain scare them.
Kelly: I love the slow burn – those moments that you catch out of the corner of your eye and you’re thinking “did I really just see that?”… I love that sneaking in. It makes you question what you’ve just seen, which is great!
As far as the location itself, it’s this amazing desolate environment… what made you decide to set the film in the Joshua Tree desert?
Elle: I’m originally from New England, and I had never been to the desert before. So I went out there a few years ago, it was so foreign to me, and so strange. I had never experienced something that was so open and vast.
Joshua Trees, in particular, are like… is it a tree or is it a cactus?.. and they kind of look like figures in the distance. It’s very unnerving to me! I was totally out of my element. It was scary! I did not feel safe [laughs].
So when I came up with my monster, I wanted to put it in that environment. If it was so scary and foreign to me, maybe it would be scary and foreign to other people as well – and the characters themselves. You feel very alone out there, because you can see everything and you wonder what, then, can see you?
Kelly: Yes! And I totally get what you mean about the weirdness of that arid environment. It’s creepy when you see it and get that idea of the isolation – but like you said, are you really alone out there? I think it’s really cool and creepy.
Kelly: Coming off of your experiences with making Head Count, if you had any advice for new or aspiring directors, what would it be?
Elle: My advice would be to find a story that you’re passionate about, and just go all in. I was like, I love monsters, so I’m going to make a monster movie. You know? [laughs]
In film school I had this idea of what my path might be, and then I was like, no, I love monsters, I’m gonna make a monster movie. I just put everything – heart, soul… mind [laughs], body – all into it, and I hope that shows.
And just keep making things. For a while, I wanted to wait for the exact right time to make my film, and I was like, there’s never going to be a right time. I’m just going to make it now, because if I don’t, I feel like these stories and ideas are going to eat me alive. And I need to share them with the world – and freak everyone out!
Kelly: I love that! Going back to monsters and folklore, there’s so many cool ideas with the monsters you mentioned that are blended together. Growing up in New England, what stories or what horror scared you or affected you the most as a kid?
Elle: When I was a kid, I was most affected by the lore of the babysitter. I mean, that’s kind of really my fault, but, the babysitter stories that you would hear… There’s one in particular about a girl who’s babysitting, and there’s a clown doll in the bedroom with her and it’s really creepy, and she goes downstairs, the parents come home, she says “oh there’s a really creepy clown doll in the room”, and they’re like “what clown doll?”. And that scared me so much! It plays on this idea of fear in hindsight – she thought she was safe because it was just a doll, but… was it?
So I tried to emulate that in my film, where the characters thought that they were safe – they thought everyone was themselves, but maybe someone wasn’t? There was a monster among them the whole time. And looking back and getting those goosebumps of “oh my gosh I can’t believe I missed that”, I think is pretty terrifying.
Kelly: It creates a second way to look at it when you do a rewatch, when you know what to look for, and when.
Kelly: Speaking a bit on women in horror, Head Count has some really well-rounded female characters and fantastic performances. What does female representation in the horror genre – or the entertainment industry as a whole – mean to you?
Elle: I just want to tell stories. I just try to create the most realistic characters that I can. My main character was male but he had a relationship with this girl – I tried to make it as realistic as possible in that they’re both kind of awkward and they both like each other, and he’s trying to fit in with the group, and her friends are kind of intruding on their relationship.
But at the end of the day, we all just want to tell stories. I’m very fortunate to have my first feature come about in a time when women are being given a lot more equal opportunities to get their art out there. I’m very thankful for all those hardworking female filmmakers in the industry who have come before me, and paved the way to give me a platform to present my art fairly.
Kelly: What’s next for you – what’s your next project on the horizon, if you can share any details?
Elle: [laughs] I don’t know if I can share too many details, but I’m definitely staying in the horror space, and definitely within folklore. That’s really important to me.
Head Count premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on September 24. Check out the trailer and poster below!