The Head Hunter Director, Jordan Downey, understands exactly how to stretch a budget. My introduction to his work wasn’t through his horror (parody?) films Thankskilling and Thankskilling 3 (both of which I have not seen), but with his short film Critters: Bounty Hunter. This was a short he made as an audition when he got wind that Warner Brothers was rebooting the Critters franchise; a franchise that, like me, he has a great fondness for. His take was very much in the vein and tone of the original film and it was clear that he could make something that would satisfy the fans at very little cost. He felt like a slam dunk to get the job. Inexplicably, the job ended up going to Jordan Rubin who made Zombeavers, then Warner scrapped their digital service, and the web series got dumped on the streaming service Shudder as the much maligned Critters: A New Binge. If you are a fan of Critters at all, check out Downey’s Youtube page for a full behind the scenes documentary love letter he made about Critters: Bounty Hunter and the franchise in general. The Critters franchise is now in the hands of SyFy and a new movie is in the works by yet another someone who is not Jordan Downey, but hope springs eternal that he’ll one day get to bring his version of The Krites to life in a long format.
But I digress. Due to Downey’s Critters short, I kept tabs on him and starting seeing bits and pieces about a little film he made called The Head. As the promotional campaign progressed and the film started making the festival rounds, the title eventually changed to The Head Hunter. The initial artwork from the film cast a supernatural, medieval tone, and struck a chord with me immediately. Recently the film was released on VOD everywhere and I put my peepers on it. Here’s what I thought.
So, like I said, Jordan Downey knows how to stretch a budget. The movie was made for a very meager $30,000. No, I’m not missing a zero. Thirty thousand bones. $30k. The Blair Witch Project was made for twice that 20 years ago and doesn’t look half as good. Now, I’m not saying The Head Hunter will make Blair Witch money, not even close, but this film is a testament to Downey and Company’s uncanny ability to put every dollar on the screen and make an unbelievably cheap movie look anything but.
To pull this off, Downey wrote a script that was well within his means, rather than try to push his budget beyond, which would have spelled disaster. Make no mistake, this is a medieval, fantasy, epic, and it feels like it, but you can also easily see when and where his choices were deliberate in order to save money. For some, this could make for a frustrating viewing experience. You never see our title character (played with simmering intensity by Christopher Rygh) swing a sword, or cut off a head. But instead of letting this frustrate me, I settled into the story, letting its budgetary shortcomings and “less is more” style morph my perspective into a different kind of viewing experience that ultimately defines exactly what makes this movie work.
The story itself is very simple. Father and Daughter live in a medieval land, constantly under the threat of danger by various monsters. Father must protect his Daughter, ultimately fails to do so, then vows to avenge her death by killing the beast who took her life. It’s a story of the all-consuming nature of grief. The theme of the movie is summed up perfectly when Father speaks to a corpse by a camp fire. He asks the corpse, “What got you? A troll?” Then says, “A little girl and the oath I made her. That’s what got me.” He understands that his road ends with his grief and that he won’t overcome it, even if his body lives on.
After the death of his daughter, Father becomes a bounty hunter of sorts. Perhaps this was always his job. He hears a horn blow in the distance and emerges from his stone house, grabs his sword, helmet, and gear and trudges off through the snow towards his destination. He comes back with a head and some vicious wounds of his own. The wounds he treats with a mysterious black sludge that causes him to pass out. When he wakes, the severe gashes in his flesh are nearly healed. Earlier, we see the complex process of how he creates this strange goo, in what can only be described as a form of potion mixing and sorcery. It’s a remarkably effective scene that introduces a big part of this world we didn’t know: there is a type of magic that exists and is known here. Downey is building a world with complex rules.
The film is littered with little details that give you small incremental insight into the world you are observing. At one point, Father looks up into the sky and you see the shadow of a dragon float across his face as you hear it scream. His look is one of wonder. We don’t see the dragon, but we see him see it. This is, of course, a way to save money while adding detail about the world, but it is also representative of Downey’s choice of how the audience will participate in this story. This works because it creates a sense of mystery about our environment and more importantly, it’s a consistent point of view. It doesn’t shift back and forth like it would in a movie that received sporadic funding or helmed by a director with less vision or intent.
Besides Christopher Rygh and his own moxy, Downey’s best assets are his locations. His writing partner, Kevin Stewart, has family in the small Portugal village of Soutelo Mourisco and the majority of the film was shot there and in Mammoth Lake, CA. Downey wisely uses several well-placed establishing drone shots to open up the world, give it an otherworldly feel, and let it breathe. These shots are never overused as filler. There is no filler. Every moment in this 71 minute film is used with purpose.
The film is not without its problems. Some may quibble that Downey commits too much to his minimalist approach at the expense of the story. Others, myself included, may scratch their heads when they realize that Father’s healing potion could likely have saved his daughter from her fate. I also found the film’s small amount of dialogue to be difficult to hear, but this might just be me. I turned on the closed captioning and I’m glad for it. I’m not sure I would have deciphered the VERY important word “Boooody” had I not. Not as a negative, but Downey also wears his influences on his sleeve. Carpenter and Milius come to mind as does Richard Stanley’s Hardware in a way that would be too telling.
Ultimately, Downey and his tiny crew have crafted something they should be supremely proud of. I have to think The Head Hunter is the beginning of great things (and bigger budgets) in the future for he and the others involved. I also would not be the least bit surprised if this little film’s presence grows into the zeitgeist as a bonafide cult classic.