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July 30, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | July 30, 2008 |

Perhaps one of the hardest genres to pull off, aside from a successful vehicle for Britney Spears that isn’t a snuff film, is that of the combination comedy-horror. It’s no wonder some of today’s top marquee directors feature one on their curriculum vitae: Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Edgar Wright, and unintentionally Mike Myers. It’s a fine line between making your audience howl with laughter and squirm with uncomfortable terror. Usually, they keep the violence cartoonish and hyper gory in order to keep the rift more manageable. Rarely do you see something that manages to be genuinely frightening but still keep the laughs broad. Which is why Baghead, the second film by the Duplass Brothers, looked particularly intriguing. It seemed like it was going to combine an indie relationship comedy with some grassroots spooks. Sort of like The Strangers meets Clerks.

The movie fails spectacularly on all fronts like Thanksgiving at the Bales, but at the same time, it’s a pretty decent flick. There are a lot of problems with this film, but they get a lot right. Plus, it’s got this incredible indie core, where it feels like you’re watching a particularly well-made home movie. It’s so goddamn adorable and sweet, you root for it, like the one fat guy heart-attacking his way through a fun-run. If you’ve ever been to a friend’s community theatre production, you know what I mean. It’s sloppy, goofy, and pretty weak, but you just feel yourself smiling despite all of that. It’s a meta-film without being too clever or confusing, self-referential without ever feeling like it’s sarcastically winking at you.

Baghead is about four actor friends who, sick of being relegated to background work, decide to go out to a cabin in the woods and make their own horror movie. They imagine the murderer should wear a paper sack on his head. Suddenly, a mysterious stranger in a paper sack appears and starts menacing them. Could it be one of them? Could it be another person all together? Could it be the long dead corpse of Ranger Smith visiting vengeance upon the denizens of the forest for years of pic-a-nic basket thievery?

As a horror movie, Baghead is a massive failure. Sure, there are a few Z-grade bangs and whistles you’d find in any menacing backyard Halloween haunted house, but other than that, it’s predictable and dull. But that may be the point. Baghead isn’t supposed to BE a horror movie. It’s actually a pretty goddamn wonderful relationship comedy. From the get-go, they set up the rote cardboard cutouts culled from the great big Box O’ Romantic Shenanigans. Charming leading man both ladies desire? Check. Schlubby best friend who pines for a girl way out of his league? Check. Vaguely attractive former flame of charming hunk? Check. Cute bubbly younger girl with perky breasts who’s super flirty? Check. Toss them in a cabin, dose with liberal amounts of wine and beer, and voila! Instantaneous love story! Right?

Well … yeah. It is. Even as blandly generic as the character types are, they themselves are really well fleshed out. They transcend the stereotypes because they feel like people you know. With the handheld digital camera weaving around in close-up, it is almost voyeuristic and intimate. Again, the movie benefits from being a cheaply shot indie cast with virtual nobodies. It’s an honest look at love, almost Midsummer Night in scope, but without coupling everyone up and beating you over the head with roses and chocolates.

The cast is the hardest part to cope with. Everyone feels like they’re entirely too old to be in the movie by at least a decade. It feels like it should be a teen comedy, instead of thirty-something slackers ruining it up. The only one who feels correctly cast is Michelle (Greta Gerwig) because she looks fresh out of college. But if the actors were younger, the maturity of the story would be completely lost. It has to be this group of wannabes because the age disparity gives the story that added level of desperation. They need to make a movie because, at their age, getting recognition is all the more important. After watching The Puffy Chair, that fact seems to be the modus operandi of the Duplass Brothers. They write about middle-aged folks who exist in a state of arrested development and never can quite reach the next plateau of responsibility and settle down.

Which is why the bad horror movie aspect of it works and needs to be there. If you’re going to make a cheap little film, chances are it’s going to be a horror movie. A few friends, a couple packets of red food coloring and Karo syrup, and a weird maniac with a penchant for power tools, you’re done. Baghead also takes a look at the nature of independent filmmaking itself. The opening scene doesn’t just lampoon small film festivals and the filmmakers themselves, it harpoons it, drags it aboard the ship, and trusses it up on the dock for tourists to pose along side it. Even more admirably, it pulls the entire affair off in about five minutes. It’s a homemade movie about making a homemade movie. Where most films would try to use that to be creative and clever and cutesy, Baghead doesn’t put too fine a point on it.

Ultimately, Baghead works because it’s a movie made by four friends trying to shoot a movie in a weekend about four friends who make a movie in a weekend. The four cast members are unknowns, but they all look familiar like you’ve seen them in other films. I thought Ross Partridge (Matt) was the lead from The Puffy Chair, because he just looks like Mark Duplass. Chad (Steve Zissis) kind of looks like an amalgam of Mark Lynn Baker — Cousin Larry from “Perfect Strangers,” Stanley Tucci, and Jay Sherman from “The Critic.” Elise Muller (Catherine), the older vamp, looks like she could have been a stand-in for the cast of “Melrose Place.” She’s one of those girls you’d see on the street and think you recognized her, maybe from a magazine spread. Greta Gerwig is so fucking precious you just want to put her on a shelf next to Strawberry Shortcake and a bag of Burt Reynolds’ chest hair. Of course she has the added benefit of being in one of the finest examples of improvised miniDV independent films ever birthed on to the festival circuit, Yeast. (Did this movie star one of my best friends in the world, and featured her bestest pal as director and star? Why, yes. Yes, it did. Why do you ask?).

The ending isn’t very satisfying, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. The movie didn’t learn from the movies it was making fun of in the opening scenes. It’s too artistic and non-committal, like I pray to God Devendera Whatsmylastname is with my Natalie Portman. I’ve known her since she was 11, she’s mine! If they had gone for a Cinderella happily-ever-after or an M. Night What-a-twist!, it would have felt like a cheat. Instead, it ends in the same sort of slacker realism that permeates the film throughout.

The Duplass Brothers are part of a movement in the independent film world called “Mumblecore.” The films are classified by being cheaply shot (usually on DV), involving mostly improvised dialogue, and non-professional actors. However, non-professional is a bit of a misnomer, since it implies they’ve gathered up non-talented nobodies. These actors are great in their roles. If this movie was made with A-list actors or even their CW proteges, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. As it stands, you love it because it’s so grungy and imperfect. It didn’t make me want to stand up and cheer wildly, but it certainly was one of the better films I’ve seen this year. Mumblecore has a tendency to alienate and polarize an audience, and often can start hipster fist-fights at underground screenings, which is worth the price of admission alone. Seeing those little slappy bitches with their tight sweater sleeves rolled up, pools of expensive coffee and pages of dreary poetry scattered about the floor of the cafe. It’s precious, really.

It’s the curse of independent film that Baghead will get washed away in the wake of mega-ultra-super Blockbusters this summer since people are more willing to appreciate sleek and shiny explosive epics than something smaller. But it’s hard to convince people to support movies that are just OK. Even I would be hard pressed to say “go drop $10 on this film, it’s so worth it.” It’s a movie born to be a Netflix rental and rightfully so. When you do get around to watching it, you’ll probably like it alright, like a 2 AM hummer from that last fat girl at the bar. It’s not going to blow your mind or your chunks like Dead Alive or Evil Dead. It’ll give you a solid chuckle and a warm feeling in your belly like a whiskey split (with jimmies!),, which is why I’m having such a time revving up my usual face-melting scorn. I’m going to have to go and punt a bib-wearing baby otter whose trying to open oysters on its stomach just to get my hate back.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

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