Horror movies can shine with a low budget — just look at the ingenuity and thrills of Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project. In a perfect world, Jordan Downey’s The Head Hunter would become as big a hit as those two, erupting into a franchise of fantasy-horror movies starring brawny and bearded wizard bounty hunters.
The Viking-like Christopher Rygh plays the title warrior, who is only referred to as “Father”. He is quite literally a guy who hunts heads. More specifically, monster heads, which he does on behalf of the people living in a local castle, all in hopes that one day he’ll be called upon to finally face the creature that killed his daughter.
That’s the entire plot. Rygh carries the entirety of The Head Hunter on his bloody, muscular shoulders, as this is pretty much a one-man show, with fewer than a dozen lines of dialogue to work with. Most of the first half of the film deals with the day-to-day life of Rygh’s grief-ridden hunter, and the endless cycle of him waiting for a horn to sound, which alerts him of a new monster he must kill. Rygh does an excellent job conveying the emptiness that Father feels, and how much grief drives the man’s thirst for revenge.
The Head Hunter is a showcase of atmosphere-building, focusing first on the painful monotony of Father’s life and how relentlessly he carries out his work while waiting for his real target to show up. For nearly half of the film we see him grinding wood into a pike, mounting it on his wall decorated with all kinds of monster heads, grabbing his very badass armor and weaponry, going out on the hunt, returning with a heavy bag on his shoulders, and powering through some gruesome wounds. Slathering on a mysterious, magical black goo heals his gashes, and prepares him for the next day of his violent life.
Thankfully, the film never feels repetitive, nor does the pacing ever drag, mostly due to Downey’s sharp editing. But the brisk runtime still leaves room for absorbing images. The Head Hunter is truly beautiful.
Cinematographer Kevin Stewart (who co-wrote the script with Downey) takes full advantage of the remote Portuguese and American locations where the film was shot, capturing vast emptiness and misty forests that look like Skyrim brought to life. There are landscape shots so majestic that, combined with our hero’s Viking-helmet, could easily pass for Tamriel. Like the best parts of The Revenant, a seemingly endless, frozen woodland create the feeling of a long-gone era, though in this case it is one where monsters roamed the Earth.
And like the Oscar-winning film, The Head Hunter uses shadow and darkness to bring its world to life, as Stewart relies mostly on bonfires or torches to provide light, the rest of the screen being filled by endless darkness. Likewise, the sound design by Eric Wegener and the music by Nick Soole help fill the film with enough rich auditory detail to compensate for the lack of expensive visual effects.
The biggest flaw of the movie has everything to do with its micro budget. We see plenty of elaborate monster heads mounted on Father’s wall, and even get a glimpse of a flying monster (that I’m choosing to believe is Alduin). However, those hoping for lots of monster brawls and giant creatures filling in the screen will be disappointed to know that most of the fights happen off-screen, with only the grunts, screams and howls of man versus monster to fill our imaginations. We get enough rich detail in the production design to reference a much larger world, filled with folklore-inspired creatures, hugely populated castle and towns, and giant beasts soaring through the skies to make us which we could get additional stories set in this world.
There is one creature we get a pretty good look at: the main monster our Viking hero is after. Halfway through the movie, when Father finally faces off against this creature, the film leaves behind its atmospheric and moody slow-burner in favor of slapstick, B-movie fun that owes more to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 than The Lord of the Rings. Though we don’t get more than fleeting glimpses of the titular head, what we do see is an impressive showcase of practical effects, including some gnarly and gruesome makeup effects that should satisfy any horror fan.
The Head Hunter pushes a tiny budget to epic levels, stuffing pulpy madness and fantasy gore to immersive extremes. If you’ve played a hundred hours of Skyrim or any other monster-battling, open-world game, consider letting Downey and Stewart do the playing for 72 minutes.
The Head Hunter is now out in limited theatrical release and VOD.