A prankish comedy-thriller overtly about desperation and insecurity, Baghead begins with a dead-on Q&A at a Los Angeles indie film festival, where an underground auteur (Jett Garner) condescendingly responds on matters of budget and improvisation. (“Do you plan every word you’re going to say every day?”) A quartet of unemployed actors, after being ejected from the fest’s afterparty, ruminate about their careers and decide to hole up in a house in the sticks to write a screenplay for their own calling-card vehicle. This second feature by the Duplass brothers, with co-writer/lead actor Jay from The Puffy Chair now sharing directing credit with Mark, soon becomes a kind of mumblecorish spin on The Blair Witch Project (or a riff on that movie’s founding marketing myth that it was authentic found footage). But the crux of the suspense is where the joking will stop, both among the deceptive and game-playing characters and by the filmmakers. As a hybrid, it’s destined to disappoint horror fiends who take its predator-in-the-woods moves at face value, but it delivers on its premise that the shameless scheming of a friend can be a scarier phenomenon than a boogeyman with a knife.
The rural retreat is fraught with emotional evasions and sexual peril, as would-be leader Matt (Ross Partridge) has enjoyed 11-year on-off “soulmate” status with soft-shelled beauty Catherine (Elise Muller), who harbors thirtysomething worries about maintaining a screen-friendly ass while noting Matt’s flirtation with the younger, pixieish Michelle (Greta Gerwig). Matt’s self-loathing, pudgy pal Chad (Steve Zissis) is smitten with Michelle, who ducks her head away from his attempted kiss while stingingly reassuring him he’s her best friend and like family. Before things can devolve into full-blown sex farce, Michelle has a dream (or does she?) of a menacing figure with a bag over his head lurking outside the cabin, and Matt seizes on it as a perfect concept for their script. Then a bedroom-invading baghead materializes, and there are a couple of disappearances; is it the work of a psycho or just, as the press notes jokily call it, “a Scooby-Doo narrative”?
For all the use of first takes and jerky camera moves, the John Cassavetes invoked by Baghead is not the indie pioneer saint but his Faustian thespian-husband character in Rosemary’s Baby. Isolated cabin setting notwithstanding, the principals aren’t horny teenagers but varying types of neurotics who are just old enough to be panicking at their lack of prospects. (Among the nice Friday the 13th-variety in-jokes, however, is an unpleasant shock that comes to Matt mid-masturbation.) All four of the ensemble members impress as recognizable, self-designated losers who are alternately buoyed and annoyed by the others’ attentions and demands. “I am cute, I am funny,” Matt makes Chad repeat to deflect the focus from their tiff over Michelle, but also trying to be his friend’s Broadway Danny Rose in a strangely supportive way, with stranger yet to come. If the film’s “reveal” can’t help coming off as anticlimactic, the novelty of its creators’ juxtapositions and energy of its cast make it a funny and disquieting stumble through sleepaway-camp territory, and a caution not to mix unrequited love with screenwriting.