[Review] The Head Hunter
This review is a long time coming. I went to my first festival last year (you can find the reviews here) and it was honestly a blur. I had the best of intentions to get to every film, but there just wasn’t enough time or there were scheduling conflicts. In all, we saw about a dozen films. But there was this little film called The Head that ran about 72 minutes long and no one knew anything about it.
The brief plot snippet didn’t really help. It just stated: “A medieval bounty hunter seeks vengeance on the monster that killed his only daughter.” It was the North American premiere and looking for reviews or literally anything about it was impossible. Meanwhile, I’d heard fantastic things about Terrified and The Witch in the Window and so we decided to go to those instead. And while it was fantastic seeing those films on the big screen and, in the case of The Witch in the Window, hearing from the filmmaker, I wondered what I had missed.
Well, that movie, now aptly re-named The Head Hunter, is out on VOD and some theatres on Friday and I have finally been able to watch it. I was surprised by what I found.
It begins with a burly man (Christopher Rygh), clad in armor, waiting in the snow. Ropes tied between trees have baubles dangling from them. A primitive alarm system. And when they jingle, he leaps into action, sword swinging and we hear him kill the unseen beast. “Father?” comes a voice from a nearby, makeshift hovel. It’s his daughter (Cora Kaufman). After he calms her, the scene shifts and we get some of the only narration in the film:
“I always thought I could protect her, but the wind blows new and things change. And the thing that took her is still out there.”
And so he prepares, while mourning his daughter’s death by placing a symbolic arrowhead on her grave. People say it can take a soul into the afterlife. But he doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t believe in much anymore, outside of his gruesome trophy wall, where the heads of monsters he’s slaughtered are foisted onto pikes. High art, it isn’t. And it’s probably pretty smelly. But he doesn’t seem to mind.
His life has become an endless cycle of him waiting for a horn to sound, alerting him to a new monster terrorizing the land. It’s a ritual. Grind wood into a pike, mount it on his trophy wall, grab his hunting gear, kill the monster, mount the head on the pike, heal his wounds with a mysterious and mystical poultice. Rinse and repeat. Until the day that the monster he’s waiting for has returned.
The truth is that the brief plot synopsis on the Telluride Horror Show film page is pretty accurate. There’s not much more to the film. It’s not really about a plot…or about special effects. Instead, it is a very moody and restrained work of art that mimics the unending grief and feelings of revenge this man has burning in his gut. For most of the movie, the fights all happen off screen and all we hear are the sounds of the monster and the man grunting, screaming and howling. You can tell the film’s budget is stretched to its limits and I wonder what could have been, had the filmmakers had more money.
And yet it looks stunning. Cinematographer Kevin Stewart, whose resume is filled with short films with the very notable exception of Unfriended: Dark Web, brings an incredibly epic feel to the film. Some of the landscape and establishing shots could have been ripped from The Lord of the Rings. Stewart also understands the importance of darkness and shadows. Most scenes are solely illuminated by a torch or a bonfire and the dark space that fills the rest of the screen is moody and oppressive. That mixed with the sound design brings the world to life, where expensive visual effects aren’t able to.
Its ambition is bursting at the seams and it’s obvious that the majority of the budget was spent on the final, climactic and extended fight between the man and the monster who killed his daughter. The final act, in fact, takes a very dark and horrifying turn. And for that, it somehow only seems right that we see that battle, whereas we just heard the previous ones. It’s a vicious and bloody affair, for the budget, and ends with a perfect final shot.
The biggest surprise for me is who wrote and directed The Head Hunter: Jordan Downey. If you had told me that the man who birthed ThanksKilling would have made a restrained and moody movie such as this, I would have laughed in your face. Or, at least, politely scoffed in your general direction. But it’s true. It kind of shows a bit in the final monster’s puppetry, though it’s wisely covered by the oppressive darkness for the most part. But, man. Talk about a complete 180.
The Head Hunter won’t be for everyone because it lacks a lot of visual action, outside of the extended finale. It’s more of a moody atmospheric examination of this man’s eternal need for revenge. With very little action, I would imagine some call it boring. But I found it engrossing and a perfect example of how indie films can make the most of their restraints. And man, what a brutal ending.