What if John Cassavetes made a horror movie? The Duplass brothers take a detour through genre territory with “Baghead,” serving up their latest biting relationship study with a “Blair Witch” twist: Four wannabe actors plan a weekend screenwriting retreat at a cabin in the woods, where someone wearing a paper bag may or may not be stalking them. Without CW stars or flashy production values, this clever insider’s riff about life on the lo-fi end of the indie spectrum seems tailored for the fest circuit, where Sony Pictures Classics can hope to drum up more buzz before its modest release.
Depending who you ask, the Duplass sibs are either the vanguard of a new creative wave (collectively known as “mumblecore”) or glorified home-movie directors. Though profitable on their modest investments, these semi-autobiographical DIY projects exist on the fringe of the fringe, typically too rough around the edges for mainstream auds to tolerate, but they’re well worth investigating. As in Cassavetes’ early work, there’s a fresh, ripped-from-life quality amid the “amateurish” acting and “sloppy” shooting style, which, given time, stand poised to redefine indie filmmaking for the YouTube generation.
Though its scares are scarce, “Baghead” provides what nine out of 10 dead-teenagers movies lack: specifically, a realistic sense of character that gives moviegoers a reason to identify with the would-be victims. Except for the occasional camera-lurking-in-the-woods shot, “Baghead” is effectively immune to horror conventions, focusing instead on the turbulent sexual chemistry between its two central couples.
Studly Matt (Ross Partridge) and ex-girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller) have been dating on and off for 11 years. But best friend Chad (Steve Zissis) complicates the dynamic by inviting along his latest crush, Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who dismisses her salivating suitor with the compliment, “You’re like my best friend but also my brother,” before openly turning her attentions to Matt.
This is precisely the territory where Mark and Jay Duplass excel, taking the art of the awkward moment to new heights. Sideways looks, insincere smiles, wounded reactions — nothing escapes their handheld (occasionally nauseating) camera’s eye. An afternoon swimming scene, all jealous glances and touchy-feely flirtation, conveys volumes about the betrayals brewing between characters, even before the bag-head pranks begin.
That hokey genre hook may lure auds, but its execution is the movie’s weakest element. And for all the insights into emotional frailty revealed in its first half, “Baghead” still feels like a step backward from their last (and first) feature, “The Puffy Chair.” Where that movie zeroed in on the breaking point in a long-term relationship, “Baghead’s” characters aren’t thinking far beyond their next sexual partners.
Pic is ultimately a low-concept lark, the Duplasses’ latest volley in an ongoing conversation with their mumble-cohorts. It pokes fun at horror movies, but doesn’t effectively function as one, while dismissing the artsy underground movement to which it belongs. Still, they’re off to the big time — and that’s a good thing.