Indie jack-of-all-trades Mark Duplass’ roots in the mumblecore film movement have given him a strong base for understanding how to capture the ups and downs of human relationships. His writing on films such as The Puffy Chair (2005), Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011), and Blue Jay (2016) all focus on deconstructing what keeps people together and what threatens to tear them apart. The monsters in these stories are the frantic yearning for partnership, the unexpected ways people change, and past mistakes that linger like ghosts. Take these themes a few steps further, as Duplass has done in Baghead (2008), Creep (2014), and Creep 2 (2017), and you have yourself a strikingly magnetic horror film.
Often made under strict financial constraints and with mainly non-professional actors, mumblecore is a subgenre of American independent cinema. The movement began in 2002 with Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha-Ha, the Duplass Brothers’ relationship road trip movie The Puffy Chair, and Joe Swanberg’s LOL (2006) coming shortly after. Frank discussions surrounding friendship, sex, and insecurities shone an authentic light on this new movement in American cinema, evolving into something intimate, while at the same time plagued by the detachment that comes with new technology, something that similar films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) or Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming (1995) didn’t have. Mumblecore films were born out of a definitively millennial era — flip phone and iPod in hand.
These slice-of-life hangout movies focus on connections between friends and lovers, and late-night conversations about identity as a 20 or 30-something. These characters aren’t necessarily aimless, they’re just aware of being screwed over in life and love and won’t take things at face value. They want real connections and they want to talk about it — and that can be a real terrifying prospect.
From creature features to gothic haunted house movies, horror spawns a wide range of sub-genres that seem to cover every possible fear. One thing they all have in common is their portrayal of people’s reactions to the unknown, whether that unknown is a grotesquely disfigured alien or a mysterious new neighbor. Sometimes this terror can be right in front of your face, in the form of dangerous secrets or a cruel side of someone you thought you knew. When the unknown slithers into your personal life and tightens its grip around your relationships with the people you trust — that’s when it is arguably the most horrifying. This has been a common theme of film auteurs of the past, seen in several monumental works of horror by Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, and Brian De Palma among others. Their focus on identity and relationships is something we have no choice but to connect with, whatever the risk.
After the success of The Puffy Chair at Sundance and South by Southwest, the Duplass brothers wrote and directed Baghead (2008), an awkward relationship dramedy with a slasher spin. A group of amateur filmmakers with messy romantic pasts decide to spend a weekend at an isolated cabin in order to brainstorm for their next project. Insecure loner Chad (Steve Zissis) is head-over-heels for cool girl Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who only sees him as a friend. Meanwhile Michelle has a crush on the handsome, cocky Matt (Ross Partridge) whose decade-long relationship with high-strung Catherine (Elise Muller) is rapidly deteriorating.
Sexual tension brews, pranks are pulled, and suppressed emotions surface, making the environment unsettling in the least. When Michelle sees a man with a bag over his head watching her from outside her window, she dismisses it as a booze-fueled nightmare, while the rest of the group decides it’s a perfect subject for their new movie. The mysterious figure soon turns out to be a real threat, and the group begins to question how well they know and trust each other.
Baghead focuses on the threat of imploding relationships with the same suspense that it does the threat of a masked killer, blurring the lines between the monster and the characters’ projected anxieties and romantic complexes.
In 2014’s Creep, which Duplass co-wrote and co-starred in with director Patrick Brice, videographer Aaron (Brice) answers a Craigslist ad for a job. He meets Josef (Duplass) at his secluded vacation home in the mountains, and is told all he has to do is film him for the entire day to create a video for his unborn baby. Josef claims he’s dying of cancer, and he wants his child to know his father even when he’s no longer around. Josef’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and his attempts at connection become so awkward and forced that Aaron becomes desperate to leave. Yet even after he manages to escape, strange packages and video tapes arrive at his house, proving that Josef will stop at nothing to be his friend.
The 2017 sequel doesn’t stray far from the original premise. Again directed by Brice and co-written by Duplass, Creep 2 sees Josef, now going by “Aaron,” up to his old tricks. Instead of lying, this time he wants to confess everything, and hires YouTuber Sara (Desiree Akhavan) to film him. Rather than hiding behind mystery and lies as he did with videographer Aaron, “Aaron” sees how far he can push the envelope by exposing Sara to the darkest corners of his mind and making himself more vulnerable than ever before. Sara’s equal participation through manipulation and encouragement brings the situation to a dangerous boil until things explode in a bloody finale, leaving us to question: How far will we go for a connection and how do we prevent a horrifying end?
The horror in Duplass’ films, whether surrounding a group of friends and lovers, or two strangers forging a new relationship, festers in the microscopic lies and sociopathic tendencies that come to the surface in otherwise ordinary seeming people — people that could have been, or once were, considered friends. Mark Duplass’ skill at taking that human loneliness and need for authentic connection found at everyone’s core and pushing it to the extreme is what makes Baghead, Creep, and Creep 2 such unsettling character studies, and such effective horror films.