It truly saddens me that the bag-headed villain is one of the least-utilised tropes in horror cinema. Think back to Jason Voorhees’ cinematic debut – he emerged not with a hockey mask, but instead a far more aerodynamic potato sack over his noggin. You then have the three masked villains from The Strangers, the leader of whom also donned a bag on his head (although perhaps that was just to drown out the inane marital-woes of his irritating victims). And who could forget the brilliant Spanish ghost story The Orphanage, featuring its very own tiny bag-headed spookster. You may scoff, but I have a lot of respect for film villains with a penchant for an unflattering disguise. I mean, it’s all well and good to terrify people with melted faces and razor claws, but to strike fear into the heart of your victims with a bag over your head? Why, that’s both impressive and thrifty.
Something else which is both impressive and thrifty is Jay and Mark Duplass’ Baghead, unquestionably the most inventive horror film in years – one that puts character first and genre expectations last. The low-budget flick debuted on the festival circuit back in 2008. It was met with some anticipation, being the latest film from writer/director duo the Duplass Brothers and all. Although the names may not ring a bell immediately, the fraternal directors are charged with helping foster the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement at the beginning of the last decade.
Of course by 2008 the phrase ‘mumblecore’ had evolved from a handy buzzword to a spoof-worthy label. Even the filmmakers attributed with founding mumblecore had grown to view the designation with disdain. A shame really; no matter how dismissive labels may be, mumblecore represents an exciting time in cinema where enterprising young filmmakers took it upon themselves to put real characters in front of the camera. Baghead, the first “horror” film of the movement, indicates the many exciting directions these filmmakers can go.
Baghead stars Ross Partridge and Steve Zissis as Matt and Chad, two long-time friends from Austin, Texas who are eager to break into the film industry. They have watched their contemporaries rise up through the burgeoning local film scene, and they want a slice of the action. The duo, along with Matt’s girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller) and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) – the impish object of both men’s affection –pack up their pens, stock up on alcohol and head to a cabin deep in the woods. They’re going to write a screenplay (for a horror movie of course) that they can produce, direct and star in themselves. Yep, it’s the same “let’s put on a show” mentality that was the basis of every episode of The Muppet Show; that is, if the Muppets were drunk, sexually active, slightly over-the-hill and desperately grasping at artistic success that will always elude them (and Miss Piggy totally was).
The first brainstorming session in the cabin isn’t as fruitful as the foursome could have hoped. The alcohol flows freely, and so do the aspiring filmmakers’ true feelings. Chad’s affections for Michelle are sweetly rebuffed, although she later attempts to coerce Matt into a secret rendezvous right under Catherine’s nose. However, this is no Mumblecore 90210. The performances (particularly from the enchanting Gerwig) are so natural and funny you can barely believe you’re watching anything other than a particularly revealing home movie.
So, “where is the horror?!” you’re probably asking. Oh no, it’d be too good to give away in this mere review. Needless to say, when four people head to the woods, they’re unlikely to return home safely without having being terrorised at least once. The quartet is indeed harassed by a mysterious bag-headed villain, yet the circumstances surrounding the horror are completely organic and terrifyingly realistic. The film dances perilously close to being too meta (the self-referential moments evoke Wes Craven’s slasher-satire Scream). However, thanks to the Duplass Brothers’ steady focus on their characters (as well as the four wonderful lead performances), we are led to truly care about the victims, and not once relish the sight of their evisceration as we do in countless other scary movie. Baghead is a heartfelt character-driven drama, a delicious comic satire and a gripping horror film all rolled up in one.
Baghead arrives on DVD June 1, 2010.