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Indie horror tale offers a mixed bag

Fri., Sept. 5, 2008

’Baghead’ follows path of ’Blair Witch’

“Baghead” is the best of the shaky-cam spawn of “The Blair Witch Project.”

Yes, it’s another how-low-can-you-go budget indie horror movie about making an indie horror movie.

But this one, from the Duplass brothers, co-writers/directors Jay and Mark, takes the time to construct characters and relationships before tossing its four would-be actors into turmoil.

Chad, his pal Matt, Matt’s on-off girlfriend Catherine and Michelle, the object of Chad’s unrequited lust, could use a little turmoil. They’re wannabes who probably never will be, hanging out with pretentious indie film “types,” dreaming of a big break they’ll never get.

But seeing the latest camcorder masterpiece of Jett Garner (who plays himself), they resolve to head up to “my uncle’s place” at Big Bear Lake where, over a weekend of drinking and flirting, they’ll come up with a movie.

Chad (Steve Zissis) wants to write something that will get him closer to the younger and out-of-his-league Michelle (Greta Gerwig). Catherine (Elise Muller) is nearing her starlet expiration date and wants Matt (Ross Partridge) to get serious.

And Matt just wants to make it all happen. For all of them.

“We’re gonna do something, for once,” he declares (in between beers). “We’ll jump-start our careers!”

In shaky-cam shots, random zooms and whip-pans, the four seemingly improvise a group dynamic that touches on hope, betrayal, impatience and professional frustration. Then Michelle sees something, or dreams it: a guy with a bag over his head, watching them.

That’s it! That’s their movie.

But then the baghead shows up. Characters disappear. Tantrums are tossed, phone lines cut. Are they playing games with each other to help create the script, or is there a nut with a knife really stalking them?

The setup isn’t brilliant or particularly original. But the execution is sharp enough to throw a couple of jolts our way in the short, snappy second act.

And it’s what we’re treated to in the build-up to the scares that’s the appeal here. The pretty girl who leads the doughy “funny” guy along, the hunk who might be interested in her, the still-beautiful actress who hears the clock ticking on her career and her life, the funny guy who isn’t as funny as he seems – these may be clichés, but they’re well-drawn ones. Muller does the standout work here.

There’s the odd clumsy moment of what I take to be improv, and there are lapses in logic and in the stagecraft. But they’re trumped by a bracing burst of violent action.

And the coda, even if it doesn’t wholly work, should have some sobering lessons for would-be filmmakers who see this. Kids, try this at home.

For time and locations, see page 7.


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