I was a little surprised to find the online enthusiasm for the cheap-o swords & snow fantasy horror The Head Hunter so muted & reserved, at least among the critics & bloggers I follow. Early reviews from the festival circuit praise it as an underdog gem that barely scraped together a $30,000 budget but somehow make a compelling feature out of it. Since it’s hit VOD, however, it’s been met with a polite 3-star shrug, which is strange since this is the exact kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking genre nerds usually celebrate. Admittedly, I had a similar muted reaction to the low-budget, high-ambition fantasy-horror Hagazussa earlier this summer, so I’m guilty of this exact crime elsewhere, but I really do think The Head Hunter strives to be more of a traditionally entertaining crowd pleaser in its own cheap-o way than that fellow curio. Its scope is limited and it’s extremely light on dialogue, but it moves for its entire 72min runtime as it reaches for one grand, grotesque payoff to release all its atmospheric tension. That concrete payoff totally worked for me in a way the loftier Elevated Horror™ ambitions of Hagazussa did not, and I was surprised to find there wasn’t more of a fist-pumping, whooping-and-hollering reception out there to reward its budget-defying efforts.
In this post-Game of Thrones swords & snow fantasy horror, a medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. That’s it; that’s the entire plot. It’s such a simplified, constricted premise for a feature film that it combines both the fridging & the macho-warrior-humanized-by-raising-a-daughter tropes that weigh down most modern action blockbusters into a single meat-headed motivator. What’s interesting about The Head Hunter is that it turns that setup into a picture about the process of beast-slaying instead indulging in full-on action-horror (which would require effects work far beyond its budget). This is essentially the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen video of monster-hunting. One gruff medieval warrior with a Nick Offerman-level scowl makes healing potions out of animal carcasses and hangs the ooey-gooey severed heads of his beastly opponents on his trophy wall of spikes. Of course, audiences would generally prefer to see those offscreen battles than the daily preparatory chores & bloody cleanup aftermath we get instead, and the monster slayings themselves do essentially amount to an [IMAGINE A BIGGER BUDGET HERE] insert. Personally, I found this setup to be an impressive device in low-budget filmmaking shrewdness. It knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its limited production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well: grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.
Readjusting my expectations to The Head Hunter’s budgetary limitations & emphasis on process set me up to be absolutely floored by its climactic monster battle—which is onscreen, extensive, and shockingly cerebral in its brutality considering how shallow the premise can feel in the lead-up. After all the film’s withholding & obscuration, it really digs deep into the hurt & anger shared between our beast slayer & the monster who killed his daughter. All the frustration of feeling left out of previous battles melts away as you’re invited into a cramped, chaotic space for an up-close look at the only one that matters. There’s plenty to praise in The Head Hunter in terms of low-budget filmmaking craft: the attention to detail in its practical gore & costume design; its handheld cinematography that alternate POVs between Evil Dead monster cams & heroic video game screengrabs; its utilization of fog machines & natural lighting to enhance its no-budget forest sets; etc. What’s most impressive to me, however, is how physically & psychologically brutal its climactic showdown feels after that slow, methodical build to the moment – something it could not achieve without withholding the other monster battles before it (especially considering its budget). That choice seems to have alienated a lot of potential genre nerds hoping for more straightforward action-horror, but I personally found it to be incredibly impressive in both craft & effect.