by Matt Wedge
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The late-in-the-third-act plot twist can be a double-edged sword. Handled well, it can result in a classic like The Usual Suspects, which makes the viewer reexamine everything they’ve just witnessed. But if done poorly, the end result can be something as misguided and ridiculous as The Village. While Baghead, the new comedy/horror film from the writing-directing team of the Duplass brothers, tries to pull off a bit of cinematic sleight of hand that falls firmly into the latter category, it’s not a complete deal-breaker in terms of the overall finished product. To be sure, it is a frustrating and unnecessary twist, but the overall sense of humor present in the film still makes it worth checking out.
Matt (Ross Partridge, Prom Night) and Chad (newcomer Steve Zissis) are struggling actors in Los Angeles. After witnessing a truly wretched movie at an experimental film festival, they decide that they can write, produce and act in their own movie, jump-starting their careers. So along with fellow struggling actors Michelle (Greta Gerwig, Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Catherine (Elise Muller, Phat Girlz), they take off to spend the weekend at a cabin in the woods to write their film.
Once at the cabin, not surprisingly, little work gets done. This is partly due to the amount of drinks consumed and the sticky relationship issues that the quartet can’t seem to work out, but mostly because none of them can come up with a decent story. When Michelle has a nightmare about a man in the woods with a paper bag over his head, Matt seizes on that as the perfect jumping-off point for a horror film. Of course, plans go awry when the other characters start seeing Michelle’s nightmare man when they’re wide awake and (mostly) sober, taking the tone of the film from loose Hollywood satire to oddly affecting horror film in one quick flash.
The film was obviously shot on an extremely low budget, but the directors turn that to their advantage, using shaky, hand-held HD photography to get in close to the subjects. This shoot-on-the-fly approach also helps to accentuate the already fine performances by all of the leads, giving the comedic scenes a bit more realism as missed signals lead to painfully realistic romantic rejections. In the same way, the raw feel to the footage makes the horror sequences feel more aggressive and out of control. There actually is a lot more intensity to the horror scenes in this film than in most straight horror flicks, leading to at least three jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
But, that terrible, terrible twist awaits, ready to spring from the not-so-hidden shadows and suck all the life out of the climax. The Duplass brothers essentially sabotaged their own film, not trusting the audience to follow them all the way down the road to a pure horror film. The kind of cop-out ending that they try to pull off is insulting to the audience and sends everyone on their way with a bit of a sour taste in their mouth.
If you can deal with the fact that the ending is going to be completely dissatisfying, there’s fun to be had with Baghead. The loose Hollywood satire may play like an inside joke to some, but the filmmakers mine it for several good laughs (including the world’s best Bill Laimbeer joke) and jolts when the horror takes over. In many ways, the film plays like a joke that’s setup is funnier and more rewarding than its punchline. But at least some of it is rewarding, which is becoming something of a rarity in low-budget indie cinema.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic in Chicago.
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