Sep 10, 2008 at 12:00 am

Sometimes you've got to cheer for the underdog. Made on a shoestring budget and starring complete unknowns, this scruffy remix of slacker romance and horror flick will appeal to those looking for an evening of fringe-y, no-frills entertainment ... or, maybe, the inspiration to make a movie of their own.

Directors Jay and Mark Duplass maintain a steady hand on their stripped-down, improvisational film, integrating three disparate elements — slasher-in-the-woods horror, indie relationship flick and comedic satire — into a charming, ironic whole.

Kicking things off with a hilarious critique of underground film fests, Baghead introduces us to a quartet of frustrated Los Angeles actors stuck in the career cellar of extras and walk-ons. Convinced they can make a film better than the festival's winner, We Are Naked, they hole up in a remote cabin in the woods for the weekend with the goal of writing the movie that will provide them with their breakout roles.

Unfortunately, these four navel-gazers have no idea what to write, and so tequila, flirtation and jealousy become their weekend's preoccupation. Then one of the girls has a nightmare about a Jason-like stalker with a bag over his head and the guys become convinced they have the plot for their film. But when a bag-headed figure starts lurking around the cabin, they can't decide whether one them is playing a trick, or a real-life psycho is looking to slit their throats.

Baghead is hardly a triumph of thrills, chills or chuckles, but as far as super-low-budget indies go, it's clever and unpretentious. The Duplass brothers' slouching cinema verité approach lulls you into feeling safe before delivering a few unnerving scares. Part of this is because the film plays off our all-too-familiar expectations of slasher flicks. Which is also part of the joke. Baghead simultaneously riffs on and exploits the absurdity of the genre by demonstrating that a guy with a bag on his head is both silly and kind of creepy.

Sure, the characters aren't particularly well-developed and, yeah, the final twists aren't as ingenious as they seem to think they are, but there's an authentic rhythm to the movie that shows the disarming charms of mumblecore. Often described as glorified home movies, the style also brings with it a spontaneous sense of you-are-there authenticity. The Duplasses wield their handheld cameras with confidence, catching the awkward silences, fumbling come-ons, unspoken agendas and petty self-obsessions of Hollywood wannabes. Odd is it may sound, there are even moments that recall the early work of John Sayles or Eric Rohmer.

Expectation is the key here. If you're looking for back-to-the-woods, gore-filled horror, Baghead will just leave you baffled and annoyed. But if you can buy into the Duplass brothers' unabashed embrace of and meta-indie approach to guerrilla filmmaking, you just might walk away impressed by its ironic let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].