It’s amazing what you can do with a low budget, especially when all you’ve got to blow is thirty grand, but Jordan Downey works small scale magic with The Head Hunter, an inventive, atmospheric Viking era horror story that is one of the most creatively entertaining films I’ve seen so far this year.
In the vein of stuff like Willow and The 13th Warrior, here we see a misty, desolate Nordic landscape (actually Portugal) and the fearsome warrior (Christopher Rygh) who wanders through it in spectral, gaunt armour, always on the hunt for hordes of mythical ghosts, goblins and werewolves, a bounty hunter of sorts who displays the heads of his quarries as trophies on the wall of his forest abode. The only creature he hasn’t yet slain is the one that killed his young daughter (Cora Kaufman) years before, and it’s his brutal purpose in life to hunt this thing down over foggy mountains, through dark caves and have his vengeance. There’s an inspired sense of detail here and much of the first half we simply see his routine in studious fashion, going out to kill these beasts (mostly offscreen, as budget permits), coming home all shredded up (thank god for gooey prosthetic effects) and using a homemade magic potion to regenerative damaged tissue and heal himself. I’ve read reviews saying this is boring or slow or goes nowhere but those critics have their heads in the sand, because these extended sequences are terrific for setting up character, getting a sense for the space and time around him and treating ourselves to the lovingly handcrafted production design, from ancient manuscripts he studies to the varied heads piked up on his living room wall. When the action and horror does come later it all pays off because we’ve sat with this guy for a while, learnt his ways and are ready to see how he handles things when they go haywire. They do, but I won’t spoil the fun because there’s a few delicious twists, tons of creepy horror action and even a few genuinely poignant moments too.
This thing has an estimated budget of thirty grand, and runs for just over an hour, falling short of being an actual feature, but I know from experience just how tough it is to make a low budget work. My friends and I made a sweet horror film once that had a budget of 5 grand and the resulting product was only like eight minutes long, so I feel their pain. It’s especially apparent in horror because you need all these gory effects, costumes and exotic sets and whatnot, so it can be tough. The constraints are obvious here but I think that what Downey has accomplished with what he had is phenomenal. The setting looks beautifully eerie, atmospheric and well lit, the creature effects are earthy, elemental and refreshingly old school, the score by Nick Soole is most excellent in setting mood and the two actors playing the warrior and his daughter knock it out of the park. This was a bit less grimly serious than I pictured going in, more supernatural and fantastical than I anticipated, but once you adjust to the tone it works really well. Think more Army Of Darkness than Pathfinder but less silly and you’ll have some idea, but really this thing is fairly unique and on its own level. Plus, it isn’t a sequel, remake, reimagining or prequel, it’s an original script! How about that! Great stuff all in all, one of my favourites of the year so far.