Written by Jordan Downey, Kevin Stewart
Directed by Jordan Downey
I’ve mentioned this before but period horror films, specifically those in a medieval setting, are 100% my brand. Something about horror living in a world of knights, castles, and a complete lack of modern technology just does it for me. It’s why I’m in love with movies like The Witch, The 13th Warrior, and Brotherhood of the Wolf. It’s for this reason that I was drawn to the world premiere of Jordan Downey’s The Head at this year’s Sitges Film Festival.
Essentially a one-man story, The Head follows a Viking (Rygh) who dispatches fantastical creatures on behalf of the population of a local castle, all while hoping that one day he’ll be called upon to face the creature that took away that which was most precious to him: his daughter.
Rygh carries the film on his broad and constantly blood-covered shoulders, no easy feat for a film that barely has anyone in it besides himself. The aforementioned castle and its population? They relay their request to him by shooting an arrow with a piece of paper tied around it to a tree, ensuring that we never see them. The only time that we do catch a glimpse of the archer, he’s deep in the distance, his face unable to make out. So it’s up to Rygh to be an interesting, captivating character, which he manages to do. Presenting himself as both a badass warrior and a heartbroken father, it’s a wonderful and engaging performance.
While the film makes references to a wide variety of folklore-inspired creatures and builds a world where dragons soar through the skies and giants walk the fields at dusk, it certainly cares far more about this Viking and the emotional journey he undergoes in his quest for vengeance. To be fair, the film’s shockingly low budget – don’t be fooled, it’s a visually beautiful movie – might have something to do with that. The fantasy elements also play out in other ways, such as a mysterious healing liquid that allows the Viking to recover from battle-sustained wounds at a much faster rate than normal.
The downside to the film’s low budget is that much of the action takes place off-screen. It’s only towards the end that we get to the meat, literally and figuratively, of the Viking’s revenge. That being said, there’s still a lot to appreciate here, even if a lot of the “action” is relegated to watching the Viking prepare his healing elixir – it’s rather gross – or take care of chores around his home.
An upside to the budgetary constraints is that the film barely uses CGI FX, instead relying heavily upon something horror fans love: practical FX. The titular creature, while kept mostly in the dark, is ghoulish figure that calls to mind David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. The heads on the walls are each unique creatures that can easily send an imagination into overdrive with questions like “What is that?” and “What’s the story behind that creature?” Fingers crossed this film finds a large and supportive audience so that we can get additional stories set in this world.
Shot primarily in Portugal (with some extra scenes shot in the US), the location exudes atmosphere. Spooky forests surround foggy fens while trodden paths carve their way against mountainsides. Meanwhile, the Viking’s home is a museum of horror and mysticism. Much like the Predator, the Viking keeps trophies of his prey. In this case, he spears their dismembered heads against wooden spikes on his wall. It’s probably for the best that he’s basically the only character in the film because that kind of decor would be rather difficult to explain.
The Head is a testament to independent filmmaking. Created by a skeleton crew on a meager budget with limited supplies, it is overflowing with imagination and atmosphere.