You never know what you’re gonna get with an indie/low-budget horror movie. You could get a movie that’s super charming and works really well within the constraints forced upon it (by budget/time/available talent/etc) or you could get something that’s truly appalling and devoid of any entertainment value whatsoever. Or you could get something somewhere in between, where it’s clear that a lot of love went into the creation of the film but some element of its making went catastrophically wrong. That’s the joy of looking into a low-budget horror movie. For every gem (like Rubber), there’s an enjoyable-yet-bad film (like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), and at least three films that are too awful to watch (like Thankskilling, half the Troma catalog, or Birdemic). So, where does Headshots fall in this breakdown? Well, much to my surprise and enjoyment, it falls within the first camp. Headshots is a charming film that makes the most of its constraints and brings an interesting twist to its premise. (Mild spoilers follow!)
Headshots (written and directed by Chris O’Neill)
HEADSHOTS follows a young British actress who goes to LA to be a movie star- only to cross paths with a serial killer in her acting class.
As I said, you never really know what you’re gonna get when you watch a low-budget horror film. So, I went into Headshots armed with nothing more than the logline (above) and the trailer (which might not have been representative of the actual film). Based on that logline, you might expect a pretty standard slasher film with a pretty standard villain reveal. Well, that’s certainly not what happens here. In fact, I would call very little in this film “standard”. Sure, it certainly starts out in a standard fashion as we follow Jaime (Nika Khitrova), the previously mentioned British actress who’s moved to LA, and her interactions with her roommate, Laura (Dani Savka), and the other actresses in acting-teacher, Virginia Taft’s (Christina De La Ossa), acting class. It is fairly quickly suggested that Jaime seek out some new headshots to better sell herself at auditions, so she ends up going to see two different photographers, Lars (Graham Selden) and Mason (Thomas Ohrstrom). As you might imagine from reading the logline, this doesn’t necessarily work out well for Jamie but to say anything more than that would venture too far into spoiler territory – and this movie is honestly worth watching without knowing too much about it.
Every movie of every genre, low-budget or high-budget, needs a good story and Headshots’ best element is its story. Without saying too much about it, it’s genuinely surprising. It’s a nonlinear film; it’s essentially split into three parts: the first following Jaime’s story, the second following the story of the killer (how they ended up killing, etc), and the third following Jaime’s siblings (played by Olivia Castanho and Chris O’Neill) as they investigate Jaime’s death. The film’s nonlinear structure and its early reveal of the antagonist inject the film with an energy it might not have had were it to have been a more standard affair. On the whole, I really like the way the film bounces back and forth between the different points of view, and how those varying points of view all connect and tie together to tell the overarching story of this serial killer. It’s a unique and interesting way to tell this story and it largely works very well. Sure, the first third of the movie is a little slow and it does take some time to get into it, but once that twist happens and you realize the story is more about the film’s antagonist than it is about Jaime, the movie is immensely more interesting.
This twist also gives the film its best angle to approach a very real problem in Hollywood – that of how actresses are valued by filmmakers. It’s a poorly-kept secret that many film and TV directors simply look for the youngest and most attractive actress, ignoring those who might be more talented in favor of someone they can use for sex appeal. This directly ties into the villain’s motivation and it makes their story all the more captivating. It helps that the actor who plays the killer (who I don’t want to name in this review for spoilers, but you’ll know who I mean when you see it) gives a very strong, very emotionally real performance. It’s immensely easy to sympathize with them and see where they’re coming from and that definitely adds to the film’s horror. You find yourself rooting for them, just a little bit, and it’s so enjoyable.
Of course, a horror movie also needs some good scares and/or some good gore. I wouldn’t necessarily call Headshots a scary movie; outside of the inherent fear that comes with the fact that so many women go missing in LA annually and nobody really does anything about it, Headshots isn’t particularly scary. There are no jump scares or frightening monsters or anything like that. The horror is more psychological as you explore and understand the dynamics of why this killer is killing these women. Well, that and the visual horror you get when they cut the faces off of their victims. Yes, you heard me correctly. Headshots features a villain who literally removes the faces of their victims. And the film manages to pull that effect off remarkably well. I wouldn’t say the gore is particularly realistic, or anything, but it isn’t cartoonish, either; it’s effective. It’s never too much or too little. The actual prosthetic-work done on the removed skin does look pretty realistic (instead of too rubbery) and it makes for a very creepy image as you watch this killer fully remove someone’s face. The effects work is really strong and it (and the film’s story) are easily the best parts of the movie and they contribute greatly to the film’s success.
That’s not to say Headshots is without fault; it contains many of the issues that plague most low-budget horror films. Put simply: it suffers from a lack of finesse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as we get the film’s idea in its purest form, devoid of any unwanted tweaks from studio heads and other such executives. But it does often lead to certain things falling through the cracks. The biggest example of the film’s lack of polish comes from the audio/visual elements. To be totally fair to the director, I doubt this film had any kind of a real budget to afford particularly good camera/sound equipment. And that’s totally understandable and extremely common in low-budget horror films. But it is apparent when watching the movie, most noticeably with the audio. Often, the volume of the dialogue feels uneven and the quality is inconsistent, as though it’s perhaps being sourced directly from the camera’s onboard microphone. It’s occasionally distracting, but not deal-breaking when it comes to enjoying the movie as, again, this is pretty commonplace for films of this nature.
The same is true from the other elements that don’t quite work as well as you’d like them to. For example, while the script is very well-written on a structural level, the dialogue and character development often feel a bit lacking. Now, to be fair, nobody goes to a horror film expecting exceptional dialogue and remarkably three-dimensional characters, but outside of the film’s antagonist, most of Headshot‘s characters fail to feel fully-developed. I’d argue this isn’t a huge problem as I think the film’s story is actually about the antagonist and not any of the protagonists, but it’s worth pointing out. Just like it’s worth pointing out the often-clunky dialogue and uneven performances from many of the supporting actors. Now, to be clear, none of the dialogue or the performances are bad, but they lack the kind of polish one might desire. Some of the dialogue really works – there are a few lines that are genuinely funny (purposefully so) – but there are also some lines that are unintentionally funny or just a bit too clunky in general. The same is true with the acting. Most of it works reasonably well, but there are times where a performance does fall flat or a line doesn’t quite sound natural coming from that specific character. That being said, as far as low-budget horror films go, I’d say Headshots works far more than it doesn’t and its good qualities vastly outweigh its problems.
All in all, Headshots really surprised me. I went in not knowing whether I’d genuinely like the film because it was good or whether I’d like it because it was so-bad-it-was-good. Happily, it was the former and Headshots proved to be a charming low-budget horror film with an interesting twist on an otherwise frequently-explored premise. With a very solid script, good performances from the lead actors, and some genuinely great gore effects, Headshots should prove entertaining to lovers of low-budget horror movies. For the average filmgoer, I’m not quite sure they’ll be able to look past some of the inherent problems with low-budget filmmaking – this is significantly lower-budget than even the lowest-budget Blumhouse films are. But if you’re willing to look past some flaws, you might just find a diamond in the rough.
4 out of 5 wands.
Special thanks to the filmmaker for offering a screener of the film in exchange for an honest review. Headshots is available now on Amazon Video.