Bright Lights Film Journal

A Couple of Bagheads

Saw a couple baghead movies over the weekend and am still sleeping with the lights on. What’s so scary about a bag over a head? Who knows, but it works. I should preface by saying I’ve lived in Manhattan since 1993 for just this reason. Bagheads aren’t scary in New York, unless they come to your Halloween party uninvited and you realize you don’t know them and they wont take off their mask and are big as houses, which happened to me once. But in general, the city is too noisy to be scary, so whenever I go up the Hudson to stay over somewhere for a woodsy weekend, I try to bring sleeping pills and a white noise machine. Without those, I’m up all night freaking out over every little twig snap in a hundred yard radius of my guest room bed.

This trip, not only did I forget both those proclivities, we rented THE STRANGERS and BAGHEAD for a double bag-headed bill. Max went off to his lavish bedroom around midnight and I was left to fend for myself. I was up until 5 AM, furiously reading Farley Granger’s breezy biography “Include Me Out” until the sky grew light and I knew I was safe from bagheads and their enviable good luck when it comes to picking helpless victims.

The first film of the evening and the scariest was THE STRANGERS, starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. I won’t spoil the plot but let’s just say it’s atmospheric thanks to first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino and his ace DP, Peter Sova (DONNIE BRASCO). But as far as writing good screenplays, Bertino has a ways to go: the movie is infuriating (as in you scream “what a pair of idiots!” a lot) and full of cliched coincidences and details that lead nowhere.

For all that, STRANGERS gets a lot of things right – though everything it gets right was stolen out of HALLOWEEN. (Bertino probably assumed none of us had seen that minor little entry in the slasher genre). The score doesn’t register the proper note of orchestral panic when a baghead appears in the shadowed corner of the wide-screen frame and other times pounds you into submission on a false alarm. That’s the way it oughta be.

It’s good to see Tyler with round ears again, and though she is looking a little worse for wear, it suits her character, until she starts cringing and crying and creeping around on all fours because she can’t run three feet without tripping and cowering like the whole “final girls got the power” trip rolled right past her back in the slasher 80’s (when she was just knee-high to a Jagger-lipped grasshopper). Speedman even manages to get his hands on a shotgun which was stashed away at the cabin by his hunter father, with plenty of shells, but he’s nonetheless powerless against a baghead with an axe and two unarmed, zonked-out chicks in cute Halloween masks. If a Claude Chabrol or Michael Haneke was at the helm something bourgeoisie-critique-ish might have come of all this, but instead we just get bags… and masks… on heads and an ominous “this might be true” prologue by the same voiceover guy who did the same thing for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

There’s a great shot in the 1968 original of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, when Barbara suddenly realizes she’s unarmed and runs back into the kitchen and grabs the knife like it’s a lifeline in a shitstorm shipwreck. The protagonists in STRANGERS could surely have benefited from seeing it. Liv drops the one good knife she finds almost immediately, preferring to cry and cringe and appeal to the mercy of her attackers rather than rummaging around for some fighting spirit (she even picks up and puts down the empty champagne bottle, of which there is almost no better weapon since it’s thick glass hence a good club and makes a great jagged edge if broken). It’s hard to root for people who refuse to revert to Wes Craven-style savagery to save their own skins and when Speedman tells Liv to “Wait here” with the three attackers surrounding the place while he runs away “to get help,” you begin to root for the bad guys because its clearly a kind of Darwinian natural selection; at any rate, it’s an out from the tension, until it’s time turn off the lights and go to bed.

It’s nicely photographed however, much nicer than the next baghead film of the evening, the digital video BAGHEAD, which stars Steve Zissis and Ross Patridge and the talented and beautiful Greta Gerwig and Elise Muller as their easily impressed girlfriend friends.

There really should be more bags going around in this film, especially in the painful light of High Def, in which husky chucklehead Steve Zissis gets many an unflattering close-up. I found myself having to block him with my hand, the way one might block kissing scenes or gore, because I am sensitive. It makes me mad that our screenplay seems to think a hot, thin, addled chick like Greta Gerwig should be peer-pressured into dating a weak body-imaged endormorph just because he’s “nice” and “funny.” I mean, where are we, Mars? Get these people some bags… stat! And I mean a good bags, like from Prada or Maxinqay, that’s how you impress a lady!

These four characters play a tiresome blame game wherein they go
to a cabin to write a screenplay but it’s really an excuse for Chad (Zissis) to try and score with Michelle (Gerwig), who is really there to try and steal Matt (Ross Partridge) from his girlfriend (Elise Muller). Matt uses Michelle’s attraction to him to guilt trip her into feeling like she has to sleep with Chad, all of which, as any hep person knows, means he is really just an insecure ego-tripper using his friend as a grenade. All this is not unnoticed by Matt’s “on again-off again” girlfriend (Elise Muller) who questions him about it like she’s his mother? Answer me! They all buy into each others guilt trips in a tiresome reality TV kind of way most amoral New Yorker hedonists would scoff at. If that’s intentional, it’s brilliant, but then we must ask: to what end? These people are hopelessly lost in their navels and, just as in STRANGERS, fold into fetal position at the first sign of a bag on a head (although pictured acting brave with a bat, Matt chickens out when it’s time to smash his baghead).

It’s billing as a “festival favorite” is understandable for three reasons: 1) there is a legitimately scary Blair Witch-esque middle segment, which works because the acting suddenly gets much better. 2) It has a good message: any bunch of friends with a camcorder and a couple of paper bags can make their own damned movie, so long as they are willing to expose their friends to very real dangers. 3) Greta Gerig is damned cute, and she alone seems to have figured out how to make her dialogue sound natural: act stoned. In fact she’d have been great as one of the masked killers in THE STRANGERS!

While I’m happy to report I survived my night abroad, the only piece of pop culture I can really recommend after my grueling experience is Farley Granger’s excellent book. Talk about a perfect hunk of man: gorgeous, talented, bisexual and a lover of good food and musicals: he was friends with a whole slew of amazing show types from Leonard Bernstein to Franco Zeffirelli to Noel Coward. Riding along with Granger down memory lane is as bag-proof a way to spend the wee-wee hours of the night as one could ask for. I’d have been dead without him. The man had the balls to walk away from his dysfunctional parents, his dysfunctional studio head (Sam Goldwyn) and live his dream as a Broadway actor. And he remembers every great meal he ever had. In a slasher-filled world, Granger’s book remains proof that one can live happy and baghead free, just stop agonizing over shoddy guilt-trips and bullshit self-esteem issues, be gorgeous and talented…and never be afraid to swing.