2008, R, 81 min. Directed by Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass. Starring Steve Zissis, Ross Partridge, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 13, 2008
It's as goofy as it is creepy: a human figure with a bag covering its head staring back at you from the other side of a window pane. That duality of response is what the Duplass brothers are going for here. Kind of funny and kind of scary, Baghead's central horror motif is merely a structure on which to hang its four-character story about the depth of relationships and the drive to find meaningful work. In this sense Baghead resembles the Duplasses' previous feature, The Puffy Chair: The ugly La-Z-Boy of the title is simply the device that unites the characters; it's emblematic of something that's both ridiculous and tender. Even though Baghead is structured like a horror movie (four characters alone in a cabin in the woods – check out the May 30 opener, The Strangers, for the most recent example of the formula) and contains several expertly executed frights, the movie isn't the kind that will make gorehounds rejoice and horror mavens quicken their step. The Baghead directors (formerly Austin residents who filmed most of Baghead in this area) applied the formulas of the genre to what is described in the press kit as a "Scooby-Doo narrative," then added in naturalistic performances and their lo-fi techniques (one works the handheld camera, the other holds the boom) to create a story that elicits laughs and scares (often in the same breath). In the post-Blair Witch era, it's ever harder to create an effectively scary movie that's low-budget, low-tech, and most importantly of all, original. The Duplass brothers succeed by making a movie about a group of aspiring actors and their muddy relationships. Some might insert the adjective "mumblecore" to describe the characters' nonstop conversations about themselves, and the Duplasses are often lumped in with this recently identified filmmaking trend (this film also co-stars mumblecore poster girl Gerwig – see "All-Around Gal," March 7). The brothers, however, are much more astute about their filmmaking impulses. They are clearly interested in the telling of stories: The "Scooby-Doo" plot may just be their version of a shaggy dog story. Matt (Partridge), Chad (Zissis), Michelle (Gerwig), and Catherine (Muller) are underemployed actors who decide to stop waiting for roles and decamp to a cabin in the woods to cook up their own screenplay in which to star. Matt and Catherine used to be lovers, Chad and Michelle are best friends though Chad clearly wishes their relationship were romantic. The foursome hopes the weekend will hold some bumps in the night (take a look at the film's new poster that riffs on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) – but that's before things really start to go bump in the night. At the start of the film, the four attend a screening of a new indie film in which the director, during the Q&A, declares that "Hollywood has us convinced that it takes $100 million to make a quality piece of art." Jay and Mark Duplass know better: It isn't how much you spend that determines a picture's quality, it's how you spend whatever you have. The brothers are master strategists. (For more on Baghead, which opens exclusively in Austin on Friday before rolling out to the rest of the country in July, see "Building Buzz, One 'Bag' at a Time," June 6.)