A group of friends staying at a cabin in the woods are terrorized by someone wearing a paper bag over their head. It sounds like one of the most cliched, unoriginal movie plots ever, right? At least in the horror genre, if not the entire world of cinema itself. In Baghead (2008), aspiring filmmaker Matt (Ross Partridge) comes up with this idea for his film. The audience knows it’s tired territory, yet he gets really excited. To him, it’s as if he has tapped into brilliance.
Baghead is the second feature film brotherly filmmaking duo Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass (Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives At Home) directed. I don’t think they’ve made a film I haven’t liked yet. This and The Puffy Chair (2005) are among my favorite films in the “Mumblecore” film movement. My other two favorites came from Andrew Bujalski: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005). The Puffy Chair was a movie that explored relationships, particularly romantic ones, while on the road.
Baghead is also largely about relationships, but the Duplass brothers tried something different. They made a Mumblecore horror-comedy. If this wasn’t the first time, it was at least when it wasn’t so common. Now true, it’s not as if these filmmakers were intentionally making Mumblecore films. They were just directing naturalistic, low-budget independent films that paid more attention to dialogue and characters over plot. Mostly, critics and other audiences assigned the term Mumblecore to these films afterward.
I did recently discover that Mumblecore led to a further sub-genre within itself. Simply put, “Mumblegore” is a Mumblecore horror film. Until I learned of Mumblegore, I just viewed Baghead as the sole Mumblecore horror film. There are other movies I’ve seen that I didn’t realize classified as Mumblegore. The House of the Devil (2009) might be my favorite among them. It’s a fun little occult film Ti West (The Innkeepers, The Sacrament) directed, with a retro style.
Some other Mumblegore movies I’ve seen include Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), You’re Next (2011), Cheap Thrills (2013), and Starry Eyes (2014). I finally caught up with Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017). In fact, it was just in the last couple of days before writing this. Those films had Mark Duplass himself playing a serial killer. They are randomly weird fun, and a third movie is supposedly on the way.
Let’s get back to Baghead though. As Baghead opens, four friends are watching a special screening of an independent film that an acquaintance of theirs directed. These are Matt, Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig), and Catherine (Elise Muller). The movie they’re watching also seems like the most cliche, unoriginal indie movie ever. A man stands in front of the girl he loves. He sheds his clothing to display vulnerability, and she does likewise. The film’s title, We Are Naked, is blatant and amusing. It also brings a smile to my face to see the film’s director Jett (Jett Garner) being so clearly disappointed to get only three questions at the Q&A.
There’s a funny scene afterward where the four friends try to go to the film’s after-party. You have to be on a list, which they aren’t. Matt knows Jett, and even exchanges some words with him. Still, he manages to let the opportunity to get them in the party pass him by. Michelle has the idea to pretend to be on an important phone call while walking into the bar. It works for three of them, as the staff doesn’t bother stopping them while they’re supposedly on the phone. Of course, the one person who can’t get in is the guy who knows the director. Matt doesn’t have his cell phone on him (it’s weird to think a time like that existed now). He tries to pretend his wallet is a phone instead, which of course fails to comedic effect.
While the others were laughing at We Are Naked, Matt seems genuinely inspired; he suggests they develop their own movie. Luckily, Chad’s family has a cabin, so off they go to spend a few days in the woods. All of this happens before the opening credits of Baghead even start.
The four friends arrive at the cabin and quickly realize that coming up with a unique and interesting idea for a film is harder than it seems. As they struggle, Chad improvises a song on guitar to Michelle. Greta Gerwig is adorable and charming in the way she sings in response, “That’s me!” You could probably call Greta Gerwig the “darling of Mumblecore.” Though I doubt she would like that title.
Gerwig does seem to be the predominate female acting presence throughout those films though. She most often worked with Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Easy), the two even co-directing Nights and Weekends (2008) together. I’m not really a fan of what I’ve seen from Swanberg. I don’t think Gerwig herself really broke out until after her early Mumblecore days when she teamed up with writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). She was an actor and co-writer of his, as well as eventually a girlfriend and mother to their child. The first film they worked on, Greenberg (2010), was pretty good. However, both Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) were among my favorite films of their respective years. Gerwig’s sole directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), was also one of my favorite films of that year.
Michelle has what may or may not be a nightmare. I still don’t know. Michelle is clearly drunk at the time. The sound of wind chimes wake her up in the middle of the night. Was it the wind, or someone touching them? Realizing the alcohol has made her sick to her stomach, Michelle rushes outside. She makes it just in time before she vomits. The motion sensor lights go on, and Michelle suddenly gets the feeling she’s not alone. As she looks into the darkness, she sees a stranger with a bag over his head ducking into the woods. With such limited means, it surprises me how much actual tension is in this scene.
Michelle mentions the dream to Matt the next morning, which inspires him to make a movie out of it. It’s one of the most cliched plots ever. The degree to which Matt takes it seriously is ridiculously funny. Yet it’s the meta way the rest of Baghead plays out which ends up being very interesting and entertaining. It appears there might actually be a man wearing a paper bag terrorizing them in the woods. I’ve also perhaps never seen a movie that more naturally slips between plots and genres. It goes from a comedy-drama about four friends trying to make a movie into a semi-horror movie.
Baghead is largely a movie about romantic misunderstandings as well though. Matt and Catherine have an off-and-on-again relationship. Matt insists their relationship is over. Catherine just thinks they don’t like labels. Chad is enamored with Michelle, and believes they’re really hitting it off. Yet Michelle is really into Matt.
Matt and Chad are really close friends. You get the sense of their closeness in how honest Matt is with Chad. He tells Chad that he’s cute and funny, he just lacks self-esteem. Likewise, Chad has no problem impulsively either kissing or smacking Matt on the cheek. Sometimes the situation warrants it. Out of their closeness, Matt feels a sense of loyalty to his friend. He recognizes Michelle’s advances, but is hesitant to respond to them, knowing Chad has the hots for her. He also indulges Chad’s wishes in changing Chad and Michelle’s characters in their movie from siblings to a romantic couple. What makes this amusing is the fact that it adds yet another cliche to their film.
Michelle also recognizes Chad’s infatuation with her, but struggles to directly tell him she’s just not into him. Instead, she compares him to a friend or brother. In one scene, Chad leans in to kiss her, and fails, Michelle turning away. She jokingly replies, “You head-butted me!”, and head-butts him right back. She also ends up putting clips in his hair as a distraction from all the serious romantic talk.
Directly witnessing romance bloom between the person you pine over and a friend is an experience not foreign to me. Nor is the impulsively angry reaction to it. Steve Zissis (The Front Runner, Happy Death Day 2U) plays Chad, and has appeared in several of the Duplass brothers’ films. Besides Baghead, he also played one of the leads in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012).
There’s a scene in Baghead at night where a person wearing the bag walks into Michelle’s room. Michelle thinks it’s Matt, having invited him into her room for some sweet lovemaking. She plays along, baring her breasts to the “baghead.” It’s only when she mentions Matt’s name that the person exits the room. This serves as a clue as to who is wearing the bag, at least in this scene. It is most likely either a jealous Chad or Catherine.
Later, Chad does scare Matt and Michelle again while wearing the mask. While it’s a bit childish, it serves as a way to break the tension between Chad and Michelle. Chad also appears to be more confident. He plainly tells Michelle, “You know, you will be with me.” It’s not in a threatening manner, just a predictive one. He’s simply sure of himself.
There’s another “baghead” though, who terrorizes the four friends in the finale. The events land Chad in the hospital. Matt got footage of their stay in the woods. Chad wants to see it, but Matt is reluctant. It brings a smile to my face when Chad tells him, “I’m the one in the hospital bed. I get whatever the fuck I want.” I don’t want to give away all the details, but Matt is partly responsible for Chad’s injuries. Chad waves Matt’s feelings of guilt away. He tells him, “You are an idiot, but it’s okay. Now go get me some ice cream.”
Matt first appears to be the charismatic lead of Baghead. However, I think the Duplass brothers ultimately reveal him to be a bit of a doofus. This starts early. There’s the cliche indie film that inspires him. Feeling proud of himself when coming up with his own cliche film is another example. He’s also a bit careless in his actions, not realizing the potential harm.
I don’t know if that plays a part in it, but as Baghead goes on, Michelle’s feelings gradually change. It may also be in Chad’s brush with death, or in his calm forgiveness of a crying Matt. By the end though, Chad is not the only one sure that Michelle will eventually be with him. He has convinced us as well.
Baghead probably isn’t what you’d expect when you hear the term “horror comedy.” I do however see comparisons between Baghead and other horror films I’ve long been familiar with. Having multiple fake-outs reminds me of another horror comedy, April Fool’s Day (1986). The “baghead” reminds me of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) or Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). The scene where they barricade the house reminds me of similar scenes in Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Friday the 13th (1980).
Chad reminds me of Shelly (Larry Zerner) in Friday the 13th Part III (1982). They’re both the average-looking, overweight guy romantically striking out. Even Ross Partridge, who is essentially standing in for Mark Duplass in Baghead, brings the film some horror credibility. At least for me. He was in the straight-to-video sequel Amityville: A New Generation (1993). That was actually the first movie in the Amityville series I ever saw. I know, to most people, that’s an absurd reference. You might’ve also spotted him as Lonnie Byers in a few episodes of the Netflix original series Stranger Things.
I’ll admit it. Some of the moments in Baghead I saw as potential references to other horror films are probably stretching too far. Such as when Michelle says, “Watch his head,” in regards to Chad. It reminds me when Brenda (Laurie Bartram) says that in regards to Ned (Mark Nelson) in Friday the 13th. Yes, I realize I’ve mostly mentioned references to the Friday the 13th series. There’s also the point-of-view shot from a truck towards the end. We see the truck leaving a character in its dust. This even reminded me of a shot in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988).
In terms of the comedy, Baghead isn’t really the type of movie that would make you laugh out loud. It’s not trying for that. In a sense, it’s too realistic to do that. Yet it is the type of movie that might repeatedly bring a smile to your face, or even small chuckles. That’s what it did to me. It touches on a lot of different emotions, and for that reason, it’s worth the watch.