Our story involves a series of terrible crimes out in a random set of West Virginia woods. Last I checked, murder was generally the responsibility of a homicide detective, but in this case our "hero" is ATF agent Stewart Cummings (Jake Suffian), who takes it upon himself to try and figure out who's behind the gruesome trail of bodies as they begin to pile up (you know he's ATF because he only wears one shirt the entire movie, which says "ATF Agent" on it). Why the ATF is posted where one would normally expect to find a forest ranger is never made clear, although I also can't say I'd be surprised to learn that residences near the woods in any state proved to be teeming with alcohol, tobacco and firearms.
Admittedly, there was probably a little more detail to the plot than that, but budgetary constraints clearly took a toll on the movie in the all-important areas of sound and casting: a bigger-budget movie wouldn't have hired an old man (Dick Mullaney) whose missing teeth cause him to incomprehensibly mumble most of his lines, or they'd have had good enough microphones to pick up on the nuances in his voice rather than garbling them further. Sure, I was able to understand a good 80% of the dialogue in Header, but I imagine the other 20% was probably important too. The DVD helpfully includes neither subtitles or closed-captioning, so unless you've got the script in front of you, these gems are lost forever.
That said, even if you were able to hear Mullaney, the other actors indicate you wouldn't be hearing anything good, as each performance bears its own unique stamp of inadequacy. Elliot V. Kotek plays a resident who looks vaguely like Joaquin Phoenix when he's turning on the charm, but sports a goofy, Mike Tyson-like whine and constantly devolves into fits of hysterics. Jim Coope plays one of Cummings' ATF co-workers who argues about headers and refuses to confirm what the term means even though Cummings already seems to know the whole story. Last, and definitely least, we have Bill Corry as Thibald Caudill, whose performance is truly a disaster of over-the-top, cartoon acting. Every line of dialogue is made worse by the writing by Michael E. Kennedy, which poorly jumbles cop and hick cliches with clunky exposition in a way that magically produces something even worse than the sum of its parts.
Header is based on a book by Edward Lee, and the screenplay was adapted by Michael E. Kennedy. I can't vouch for the book, because I've never read it (I hadn't even heard of it before this movie), but the script is riddled with problems. There's really no one to root for; while Agent Cummings is meant to be the hero, one of his first scenes involves him brutally torturing a drug criminal in order to get a name, and he's ferrying drugs all over town as he goes about ATF business. I guess we're supposed to like him because he's doing it all to support his wife Kathy (Melody Garren) and her increasing medical bills, and for his apparent lone-soul devotion towards catching the "header" killer (Coope snarls at Cummings when the guy does, you know, actual police work), but I don't buy it. The other cops are so insistently lazy and belligerent that it seems more like Cummings is embarrassed into solving the case than that he has some sort of investment in it, and Suffian's performance adds to the strain. The actor practically runs from one end of the spectrum to another, playing his character's dirty dealings with broad hysterics and everything else at a subsonic level of dull flatness. Cummings' investigation also has a deus ex machina in it, in the form of a hitchhiking girl he picks up off the side of the road.
So what is a header? Unfortunately, even if the movie isn't worth your time, I'm not going to reveal it here, but it is certainly disgusting. People complain about "torture porn" in horror movies, but I'm more annoyed by a tendency for low-budget horror filmmakers to try to devise the most awful, shocking thing and then rest on their laurels. Don't get me wrong; I like horror movies and a truly jaw-dropping act of evil can really get under the skin, but the idea here is all surface shock (gross, but not truly inventive in any sort of gorehound-appealing ways). The film also trots it out several times, so the audience will also likely become desensitized to the concept of headers before the movie ends.
Archibald Francranstin's direction tries to be inspired, but the cheapness of the whole venture shuts hum down as well. There are a lot of tiresome editing tricks when the characters get riled up, but whenever the camera sits still for more than two seconds, the movie reeks of family basements and backyards. Combined with the amateurish performance, the whole thing is pretty silly, and if it weren't for the movie's grotesque nature, it might have been unintentionally funny.
In the movie's third act, the film appears to get distracted by a relatively useless drug subplot rather than the whole "header" concept, hitting a few bases with lackluster enthusiasm and then skipping off on tangents that are of little interest before finally coming back around to a predictable ending. One great idea is all it takes to make a movie, but don't let Header fool you. What's a header? Nice premise, but the film can't live up to expectations; the idea at the heart of this movie is the question, and not the answer.
Two of Header's promotional trailers are included as well.