The Head Hunter

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The Head Hunter is three quarters of the way to greatness as a high-concept fantasy horror movie. Fans of all things runic will love the beards and dirt, though they may balk at the length – it’s only 72 minutes long. If you’re in the market for a doorstop, there’s always Game of Thrones to rewatch.

Also, here be no dragons whatsoever, so be warned. But in the shape of Christopher Rygh as its Nordic warrior hero it has an excellent star. Rygh is stout of limb, bright of eye and splendid of beard. It’s hard to tell whether he’s a great actor since there’s so little dialogue, but he passes muster in all the other departments and should gain extra points for his name alone, which should surely be pronounced Ruargh!

Viking stories tend to feature marauding gangs of lusty, carousing warriors rather than loners living in bucolic serenity. But the opening credits of The Head Hunter have told us that the film features something called “the head”, created by Troy Smith, so your typical Viking saga this is probably not going to be. And “the head” does eventually turn up, as the latest in a line of trophies hacked by our hero from the body of the latest in a series of invaders he’s periodically called on to vanquish.

Between times, while waiting for the distant horn to summon him to some liege task, our solitary hero busies himself with life as what looks like a medieval apothecary or alchemist. In a spacious but crammed single-storey dwelling he has jars of lotions and potions, books with drawings and diagrams, equipment to refine and extract, plus a lot of heads on spikes as decoration. No scatter cushions.

Christopher Rygh in helmet
Appropriate headwear when danger comes calling

One of the medieval ideals of manliness was the warrior poet. This guy (he has no name) is a variation on it – the warrior scientist. There’s also an intensely practical aspect to his experimenting. At one point he arrives back home after a strenuous day of decapitating (complete with head in sack) and slathers his hideously hacked-about body with black gunk from out of a very unsavoury looking jar. By morning he is pretty much as good as new.

All fine and dandy until he arrives home with “the head”, another of his severings, and accidentally exposes it to some of the revivifying magic black gunk. “Fuck,” says our guy. There aren’t many words spoken in The Head Hunter, so clearly something is up.

What then plays out I won’t go into, but it marks a shift in the film from what might be called a lifestyle piece – “at home with the Dark Ages warrior scholar” – into more of a mainstream horror movie. Running about, dark confined spaces, hacking, ungodly screaming and gristle.

The detour into genre will please the horror fiends, and comes with an excellent kick in the tail, but it’s a break in the mood that’s been so carefully crafted by director Jordan Downey. Until then the sound of sawing and milling, running water and the hammer blows of metal-working have all contributed to a carefully assembled revisionist image of the Dark Ages. For a long time the interval between the collapse of the Roman empire and the return of “civilisation” during the Renaissance was seen as one of stagnation, disease and a reversion to a brute life. Downey is in tune with more recent thinking on the Dark Ages, of knowledge and technology being kept industriously alive in small pockets.

It’s an ingenious film made for very little money, with a tiny cast and crew who have extracted the maximum bang for their buck. You might carp that odd bits of production design don’t quite work – isn’t that a Victorian coffee grinder? – but spookiness and gore to one side, the film works best as an evocation of a life and time lost to us.

Someone somewhere will be planning a remake, with more dialogue, a comely wench or two and an extra hour of running time. Please don’t.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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