Surely, I’ve mentioned before that my favorite episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker is “Horror in the Heights.” The story centers on a rakshasa, a Hindu demon who appears to its victims as the person they most trust before ripping them to shreds, and it was written by Jimmy Sangster (screenwriter for such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein). The story works because (A) the monster is unique, especially for American television, both then and now, (B) there are enough murders and interactions with solid character actors (Phil Silvers, Murray Matheson, and so on) to keep the pace up, and (C) Kolchak, as played by Darren McGavin, is an interesting, colorful guy whom we want to follow, and we learn a little something about him in this episode that fleshes him out just a little bit more. The rakshasa costume isn’t anything great, basically a stocky guy in a hairy suit, but I love it because I have an affinity for hirsute monsters (King Kong, Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch, etcetera). The villain in Francis Schaeffer’s Headhunter is also a shapeshifter, and the film had (I’m assuming) a larger budget than any given number of episodes of Kolchak. However, it also suffers from a terrible script and a lead performance that is, at its best, grating. Plus, the only hair on the monster is its quasi-skullet.
A Nigerian demon named Chikati Tumo (I could find no reference to him as part of any mythology/religion, so I’m guessing screenwriter Len Spinnell made him up, but you never know) immigrates to America to kill people who don’t believe in him (he is going to be very, very busy, and let’s just never mind that killing everyone diminishes your pool of worshippers). Hot on his trail is Detective Pete Giuliani (Wayne Crawford) and Pete’s partner Kat Hall (Kay Lenz, who almost convinced me she wasn’t embarrassed to be in this). And that’s about it.
This film is not, sad to say, an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same title written by Michael Slade (actually the pseudonym for a collective of writers). That book also concerned a serial killer, and it had some supernatural elements and a police procedural aspect, but, even clocking in at over four hundred pages, it is likely better paced than this film (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but from the reviews of it I’ve seen, it has to be better than this movie; HAS TO). To give you an idea of how scattershot and oblivious to the need for story flow Headhunter is, I’ll describe some of its longer passages (hopefully, you’ll be as bored by this as I was watching it). After a brief introduction in Nigeria, we’re introduced to our main characters as a drunk Pete breaks into Kat’s place, busting up her nookie with boyfriend Roger (John Fatooh). Pete’s wife has taken up with her girlfriend, and we get a nice, long scene of the two of them bickering while Pete packs his shit and moves out. From the very start, the filmmakers show that they’re less interested in the genre facets of the film, as the emphasis on this situation proves, despite the fact that we won’t see Pete’s wife again until the film is almost over (and still I wanted to knock their heads together). This plot thread carries over into the police station, where Pete whines and moans, and Kat puts up with him like a real trooper. There are also plenty of scenes where, alternately, Pete ponders why he and Kat never fooled around and/or he plays third wheel to Kat and Roger’s love life. Did I mention this film is about a demon who beheads people?
Next, setpiece scenes work when there is a sense of momentum building to a solid payoff. That is their raison d’etre. The central setpiece in this film consists of Kat and Pete wandering around a trainyard for what feels like a good third of the entire runtime. And it’s all for nothing. By “nothing,” I mean, we learn nothing, it leads to nothing, and nothing even remotely worthwhile occurs during the whole sequence. At one point in the film, Pete spots Sam (Sam Williams), who they’ve talked to about Chikati Tumo, and he suddenly treats Sam like a suspect for absolutely no reason. Pete chases Sam through a meat plant before getting chucked (get it?) out a window and into a dumpster (the sight of Pete soiled with dumpster meat juice is an apt visual metaphor both for the character and the movie). A very small section of the film focuses on the actual murders, but they all feel the same, and they’re all edited confusingly. Not good for a film sold on the premise of a demon who chops the heads off people, but I’m pretty sure I mentioned that, already.
Pete, as the lead character, spends the whole film in one of two modes. Half the time, he’s engaged in miserable self-pity which leads to no self-realization or character growth. It’s just a whine-a-thon. The other half of the time, he’s screaming at everyone around him. Sure, the two can be seen as being interrelated, but neither is played with enough nuance (or any nuance at all) to do anything but alienate the audience. While a fellow cop goes on and on about sexual conquests, Pete opines, “What happened to romance?” At one point, he barges into a hardware store, frantically searching for anything to use as a weapon. An understandably concerned store associate tries to help him, and Pete shrieks (I am not making this up), “I want…SOMETHING! SHUT UP!” Crawford’s performance is the type that makes one want to reach into the screen for the sole purpose of throttling the living shit out of his character. He plays every single moment like he was the amp head in This is Spinal Tap (although, arguably, Crawford may, in fact, go up to twelve). Lenz, by contrast, does her level best to be a professional, though it’s just not enough to save the film. Nevertheless, it’s baffling that her character would put up with a guy like Pete for too long before shooting him in a non-vital organ (maybe she knows it would just give him something else to bitch about).
Headhunter leans heavily on other films, but it also doesn’t build on them at all, or try to make the references into something of its own, or do them all that well. There is a scene where a Pentecostal pastor is baptizing a Nigerian woman in a pond. Chikati’s machete appears in the water and moves in like the Great White from JAWS (thank God, Schaeffer didn’t do anything to the John Williams score). When he strikes, the pastor loses his mind in a flurry of cursing and running. I suppose this was meant to be funny. It isn’t. It’s dumb. Whenever the demon strikes, it is heralded by hurricane winds and a dense fog. The camera takes on the monster’s POV, but it’s nothing more than Evil Dead’s Raimi-Cam, just poorly executed. The filmmakers also decided, inexplicably, to intercut scenes from 1959’s The Hideous Sun Demon into this film as it plays on a nearby television. I can only guess that the reason for this is because both films deal with “demons,” though one is literal and the other is not. What I do know to a certainty is that you should never include in your film scenes from another film which is infinitely better than yours. Especially when that film is junk, too.
MVT: The concept is okay, but it would be done, in a manner of speaking, far, far better in Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil some four years later. Go watch that film, instead.
Make or Break: The domestic squabble that opens the film is just brutal and a solid sign of things to come.