Our next genre-excursion takes us to the comedy/horror hybrid Baghead, a product of the mumblecore movement. More on mumblecore in a minute, but first let’s look at the story.
Four acquaintances with big screen aspirations escape to a cabin in the woods outside of Austin, Texas, to write the script that will get them noticed in Hollywood. The script they settle on is about a murderous man with a bag on his head (see also The Strangers) who terrorizes four friends staying in a cabin in the woods. But what happens when life begins to imitate art and a man with a bag on his head shows up to actually terrorize them while they hide in their cabin in the woods?
Though the set-up sounds like a Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) mind trip about the nature of narrative and a study of how we all play roles, the movie is less interested in playing meta-games than using the horror hook as a means to explore the relationships between two best friends (Steve Zissis and Ross Partridge) and the women that co-write with them (Greta Gerwig and Elise Muller). The pudgy, best bud-type Zissis is pursuing girl next door cutie Gerwig who used to date leading man Partridge who is now dating aspiring bombshell Muller. This relationship roundelay leads to rising tensions as each character struggles to have their feelings of love reciprocated. The film’s poster evokes the polyamorous comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, but the movie is more interested in sexual frustration than fulfillment.
Baghead, has been classified as a mumblecore film. Mumblecore is a low-fi filmmaking aesthetic characterized by low budgets, the use of non-professional actors, frequently improvised dialogue, and an emphasis on conversations among youngish actors about relationships. Humpday, a 2009 comedy about two aging hipsters testing their hipness quotient, could be classified as a mumblecore picture and it’s a movement heavily influenced by the films of John Cassavetes and more recently director Richard Linklater particularly in his films Slacker, Before Sunset, and Waking Life.
Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who wrote and directed Baghead, introduced themselves with the film The Puffy Chair, a mumblecore offering about two brothers cross country journey to purchase a La-Z-Boy recliner for their parents’ anniversary. The film was insubstantial, but well-constructed especially considering its tiny budget. Mark Duplass, who starred in the film, has since developed an easy, charismatic charm that he has employed to great effect in Humpday and as the star of the sometimes hilarious, sometimes not FX show The League.
Baghead is an improvement over the autobiographical to a fault The Puffy Chair. In Chair, the Duplasses seemed too enamored of their cool leads to establish the necessary critical distance. In Baghead the coolness of lead Ross Partridge is a hindrance as his charisma and drive nearly destroys his relationships with his friends. The first half of Baghead is a charming relationship comedy about romantic frustration where no character is having their emotional needs met by the others. The romantic advances and disappointments taking place throughout the film are mostly subtle and often hilarious. Gerwig, trying to give the pursuing Zissis a hint that she’s not interested, tells him he’s “like a brother and a friend.”
Alpha dog Ross Partridge seems at times above all the petty romantic games, but as the film progresses, the frustrations of the the other three becomes increasingly palpable. And then Baghead appears. The friends, writing a horror script about the psycho killer, seem to collectively conjure him out of the fuel of their jealousy. The film also hints that maybe Baghead is a disguised member of the group out to take revenge against those who spurned him.
The film is best in its quiet moments as the characters unsuccessfully pursue one another. The low budget look and feel of the movie ground it in reality making the sudden appearance of Baghead surprisingly scary. Many viewers complain that the mumblecore films are boring, navel-gazing chat fests, but Baghead works due to its focus on the universal experience of unrequited love. You may find the ending unsatisfying–I’m still not sure how I feel about it–but the movie is breezy fun with some good scares thrown in.
(Author’s note: During the last installment of Genre-Hopping many moons ago, I promised a review of The Happiness of the Katakuris. I watched it, but didn’t care for it and don’t really want to write about it. It was definitely weird, but boring. Fans of bizarre cinema should take a look.)