With films like ThanksKilling and the Critters: Bounty Hunter short under his belt, director Jordan Downey is firmly in his low-budget wheelhouse on The Head Hunter. A mashup of medieval fantasy and monster horror, Downey’s latest movie has screened at a handful of festivals ahead of its release, and even won some big prizes at Portugal’s Fantasporto 2019 in February. While he clearly had limited resources to draw from here, Downey is nevertheless able to deliver a mean and lean tale of revenge with a surprisingly rich sense of atmosphere. Armed with a pulpy spirit and plenty of monster gore to go around, The Head Hunter makes for enjoyably gnarly fantasy horror B-movie entertainment.
Christopher Rygh stars here as “Father”, a medieval monster hunter who sets out to slay the creature that murdered his daughter (Cora Kaufman) some years before. The film’s opening alone invites comparisons to something like The Revenant, with its beautifully desaturated visuals and chilling shots of seemingly endless frozen woodland. Downey and his cinematographer Kevin Stewart (who cowrote the script with Downey) make similarly heavy use of natural lighting and shadows throughout the movie to give it an unexpected amount of texture. The pair also made the smart decision to shoot The Head Hunter in comparatively remote locations in Portugal and Mammoth Lakes, California. These vast and unspoiled landscapes help to create the feeling that this story really is unfolding in an ancient setting where all manner of monsters roam the earth.
The first half of The Head Hunter is something of a mood piece that focuses on the grimly monotonous rituals of Father’s day to day life (hunting creatures for money, making fire, cooking a mysterious substance that heals his battle wounds). Rygh does a good job of carrying the film on his shoulders in these scenes, even with half a dozen to a dozen lines of dialogue (if that many) to flesh out the character and his motivation. In a way, this portion of the movie feels like a weird version of Never Cry Wolf, only with fantastical monsters running amok instead of Arctic fauna. The pacing never drags, however, and these moments do a nice job of establishing just how unforgivingly brutal and dangerous Father’s world truly is.
As the second half gets underway, The Head Hunter evolves into a monster horror-thriller more along the lines of Predator (where it’s not entirely clear who’s really the hunter and who’s the prey). While the movie offers little more than fleeting glimpses of Father’s opponent (aka. “The Head”), it’s for the best, given the character’s low-cost design. Downey smartly sets the action at night to better hide the limitations of the monster, which is brought to life as a blend of practical and digital effects. This further gives rise to some tense sequences where Father must struggle around the natural barriers of the movie’s setting, in his efforts to find and execute The Head. If anything, this segment of the film wraps up too quickly and feels like it could’ve benefitted from some additional breathing room.
All in all, The Head Hunter makes for a pretty creative exercise in minimalism and genre moviemaking. Of course, there are times when the film’s low budget shows, and those hoping for lots of monster brawls will disappointed to know that most of the fights take place off-screen (again, for cost-reducing reasons). The story is a real meat and potatoes narrative too, and is overall lacking when it comes to substance and emotional impact. Still, Rygh has the screen presence needed to pass for a convincingly Conan the Barbarian-like brutish warrior, and his adventure at large has an equally dark and rugged vibe. That goes double for the world he lives in, thanks to a combination of the scenery and the intricately detailed production design of Father’s cabin and weaponry.
While The Head Hunter doesn’t demand to be enjoyed on the largest screen available, its visuals are surprisingly rich for such a low-budget film, and would mostly benefit from being seen in a theater. Then again, it’s all the easier to be forgiving of the movie’s flaws and (very) short runtime when you’re watching it for a lower price at home, so On Demand might be the better option anyway. If anything, this is the sort of B-movie that leaves you wondering what its director and crew could do with a proper studio budget (even a mid-range one). Until that happens, here’s hoping Downey continues to make fun, pulpy genre fare along these lines in the future.
The Head Hunter is now playing in select theaters and available On Demand. It is 72 minutes long and is Not Rated.
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