Genre films are an ideal entry point for young, up-and-coming directors. They offer the comfort of established and proven-to-work building blocks, a solid foundation on which they can build their own film (and by extension, career). But some see genre as an opportunity to subvert the expectations of the audience, by playing and rearranging conventions to create something novel and fresh. Enter Jordan Downey's The Head Hunter, a fantasy horror genre bender that is all show and no tell. Expectations were rather low going in, but I quickly became a believer in Downey's talent.
The budget for The Head Hunter is downright ridiculous, but it once again shows that nowadays you don't need millions to create a great film. For a mere $30.000 Downey directed something that easily outclasses most of its peers. It's quite clear that the budget prompted certain decisions and determined the flow and direction of the film, but in the end all that matters is the final product and that's where the film shines. The Head Hunter looks, quite literally, like a million bucks.
The film is set in a nondescript Medieval fantasy world. Downey is very sparse with information and the audience is prompted to deduct setting and plot purely from what is shown to them. So you get a castle, a viking-like protagonist and a universe that lacks any technological advancements, but does sport mythical monsters and magic potions. I'm not a fantasy expert, but these are all quite common elements, so I feel Downey was quite smart not to spend too much time explaining trivial things like that. Based on some of the reviews I read though, not everybody seems to agree. If you want everything served on a silver platter, this is probably not the film for you.
The story revolves around a lonely hunter/killer of hire, who gets his assignments from a nearby castle. He has a young daughter he needs to protect, but the world they live in is harsh and unrelenting and on one of his more dangerous quests he is outsmarted by his prey, resulting in the death of his daughter. The hunter vows to revenge her and after a while he gets another chance to hunt the creature that killed his kin. And that's all there is to it really. A simple setup, but the devil's in the details (which I'm not going to spoil here).
The Head Hunter is a film that relies on atmosphere, so obviously the visuals play an important part in the overall experience. Luckily Kevin Stewart (co-writer and cinematographer) is an extremely talented bloke who was able to make the most of the shooting locations. Portugal may sound like a strange choice to shoot a film like this, but the desolate and pristine scenery makes it look like a different universe. Effect shots were kept to a minimum but are effective, art and prop design are well above average. It all helps to lend the film a grim and rugged exterior that emphasizes the tough journey of our hunter.
The soundtrack is on par with the visuals. Nothing too out of the ordinary or unexpected, but the score is fittingly dark and atmospheric, working up to crescendos when things get hairy for the hunter, while offering eerie moments of serenity in between. It's a nice blend of music, soundscapes and sound effects that reinforce each other to create a very tight, almost suffocating experience. A great genre film needs a score that does a lot of the heavy lifting, which is something Downey seems to understand all too well.
The cast of the film is microscopic. There's Christopher Rygh playing the hunter, doing a tremendous job even though his role involves little more than grunting and groaning while looking as mean and primordial as possible in the process. Then there's Cora Kaufman as the hunter's daughter, but she only appears in two or three scenes. The only other cameo was handled by a crew member, and that's about it really. You don't get to be more economic than this, then again a film like this doesn't really need a big cast, as long as your primary actor does a solid job than you're good to go.
The Head Hunter is not a very complex film, nor is it a long and dragged out affair. That said, it is a film that requires you to pay attention to the things it shows you. If you can't commit to it, you just won't get very much out of it. It's not as if Downey explicitly obfuscates or complicates things, he just isn't willing to underestimate his audience or dumb things down unnecessarily. It's clear that his limited budget prompted him to use every cent wisely and purposefully, yet it's this very restraint that eventually pushed his film to a higher level.
If you're in the mood for a blockbuster or want something easily digestible, it's probably better to give The Head Hunter a hard pass. If on the other hand you're looking for an edgy, fresh and challenging genre film, then do yourself a favor and give Downey's first a fair chance. The Head Hunter is beautifully shot, sports a great soundtrack and has a solid cast. Most notably though, it offers an amazing experience on a shoestring budget. Aspiring directors should take a good, hard look at how Downey makes the most of his limited resources, established directors might need to question their spending habits after seeing this. The Head Hunter is a delightful film, which hopefully signals the start of a fruitful career for Downey.