Today’s film is the first of two films that were recommended to me during my call for horror film submissions. Thanks to Nick Jobe, blogger at the fantastically named Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob for recommending today’s film. I’d actually been told by several people for years to check out Behind the Mask but never took them up on it because…I’m not big on slasher films. I’ve seen the big ones, and I like them but I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the genre. Where Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon makes its mark is in unmasking the conventions of the genre (before Cabin in the Woods). It combines elements of the found footage genre and satire to present the making of a legend on par with Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees. Predictable in parts and with a low-budget feel I do recommend fans of good horror check out this film.
A team of college students interview Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), who after being thrown over a waterfall as a child, has returned to cement his status as a slasher killer and local legend. The documentary crew hope to film his exploits and showcase the making of a serial killer. When Leslie gets closer and closer to enacting his final plan the crew, led by Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), start to have second thoughts.
I do have to thank Nick for recommending this because I enjoyed the hell out of it. I did wish the film had gone a wee bit further on the idea of this alternate universe where the slashers are real, but that was a minor quip. There’s two halves to this movie: one being a making-of featurette on the life of a slasher legend, and the other a straight up slasher film. I did enjoy the first half of the film more, mostly because the second was so by the numbers, but I loved the discussions and analysis of the slasher genre, particularly in the end when Taylor and Leslie are talking about what the “survivor girl” (aka final girl) is supposed to do in the big showdown. The discussion of returning to the womb and seeing control of the killer by grabbing a phallic object are classic slasher theory and I thought it was genius.
In fact the first half of Behind the Mask lays out the real world logistics behind making a killer and again, I applaud screenwriters Scott Glosserman (who directed as well) and David J. Stieve for unpacking the theories behind the slasher genre and presenting them with respect. Case in point, how does a slasher not get winded chasing all those teens? Cardio, my friends. Leslie has quite the workout regime and we see him actually explain that no serial killer is able to avoid working out. I think what works to the film’s advantage is that Leslie starts out by allegedly being the vengeful spirit of a murdered person only to have the film reveal him as a normal man. So often you see the slasher story told after the horrific event that led said killer down his path but not before. Not only does this led credence to the making-of but it makes adds menace to Leslie as a killer. He’s not supernatural, several of his “tricks” are standard sleight of hand and yet does this make him a slasher? How does this not make him a deranged serial killer? This is one part where I wish the film had gone deeper. Instead, possibly due to time and budget, the film ignores this and simply keeps moving forward and appears content to have Leslie’s victims think he’s a reincarnated spirit.
The film plays on all the films that have come before starting off with Taylor’s introduction where she introduces various communities affected by the tragedies of their slasher pasts. Places like Haddonfield, Crystal Lake, and Elm Street! The real world issues that any serial legend gives a town are discussed with these communities suffering from economic downturns and people living in fear. It’s another segment of the story I wish had been looked at further (maybe gaining an interview with a resident of the town?). I did enjoy the various names and rules that are established. If anything the film gets props for comprehensively creating a world with defined rules it follows. Leslie plays on the local legends already established within the fictional town of Glen Echo. One of which is that on the anniversary of Leslie’s death local kids dare each other to spend the night in his family house. So of course the entire final scene has to be set there. Leslie cites it as the “anchor for my legend.” You also have the aforementioned survivor girl. There’s even the definition of an “Ahab” being a character that seeks to stop the killer, giving their own life up if need be. The Ahab of this story is Doc Halloran (Robert freaking Englund) who I lovingly consider the Dr. Loomis of the story. His campy dialogue is worth the price of rental as he tells survivor girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson) “come my child” during one chaotic scene. The film also finds time to poke fun at the various sequels and rip-offs, an ominous foreshadowing considering the horror remakes hadn’t ramped up yet. The character of Eugene (Scott Wilson), a fellow slasher, is hilarious as he mentions how slashers today are “hacks.” If he only knew!
Considering how well Behind the Mask is set up, I wish I had liked Leslie himself. I’m not sure what I expected by actor Nathan Baesel wasn’t it. Upon meeting him the guy presents himself as a combination Dane Cook/Seann William Scott and it never goes away. He’s not intimidating or threatening and while I’m sure that was the point, taking into account he’s supposed to be this frightening serial killer I never felt fearful. The first scene of him in the titled mask is probably the scariest element of the movie. It’s almost like the Halloween mask but with added definition to it. It is disturbing watching the glee on his face when he’s laying out the trap for Kelly and her friends. He almost appears to equate it to a prank from a guy in love with a girl! By the way his plan is not too far removed from the recent Cabin in the Woods in terms of rigging the house and setting up the teens for failure. When it is revealed he’s just an average Joe I was confused. If he’s not Leslie Vernon he’s some imposter that read the story? Again, how does this not make him an average psychopath? It takes a bit of time to reorient yourself to this twist but once you do the movie is back on track. It’s just an abrupt change that never gels.
The acting throughout is solid with the exception of Johnson as Kelly. I’m not sure if her acting is intentionally over the top but considering the other teens aren’t nearly that annoying, she stands out more so. Any movie with Zelda Rubinstein is instantly cooler and she’s memorable in a cameo as the creepy librarian (using her Scariest Places on Earth voice!). My personal favorite has to be Goethals as Taylor. I’m the first to complain about women in horror and she changes all of that. She’s as superior as Leslie throughout the entire film, never being stupid or flattering to stroke his ego. She’s never afraid of him either, I mean she gets the opportunity to interview him and never finds it creepy or believe she’ll become a victim. The aforementioned moment where she’s discussing the survivor girls fate with Leslie is great because she becomes just as irritated with the planning laid out for this girl as any female who watches horror should. The fact that a stereotype for women in these films is to grab a phallic object gets the same response from Taylor as I make. Goethals provides a strong, fearless, final girl that you can root for. With that, I do wish she had truly undermined Leslie during the final showdown. She goes through his ritual for some reason that’s never explained and I’d have respected the hell out of the film if Taylor had said “screw this, I’m not playing by your rules” and fought Leslie her way. For someone who knows all of Leslie’s moves wouldn’t it have made sense to do something entirely original? The way she “kills” (I put it in quotes because we all know no slasher is truly dead) is pretty ingenious.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a unique, fun, analytic look at the slasher genre from before remakes and retreads were in fashion. The acting is solid, the story is creative, and for a film that’s R-rated, its remarkably free of gore and blood for the first hour! It could have gone further to be perfect but what’s presented is good enough!
Type of Horror: Slasher
Fright Meter: 6
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.