Film Reviews

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon Scott Glosserman

Rating - 7/10

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is another exercise in a tired genre, the self aware horror movie, that manages to find success through craft and intelligence. The mockumentary is nothing new or novel, and in addition to the spectre of The Blair Witch Project, films such as Man Bites Dog have played the angle of the cameras being seduced by a sociopathic subject. Where Behind the Mask finds a tiny shred of novelty is applying this conceit to the slasher film, in an alternate universe where Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger and Jason Vorhees are real killers, admired in fact by some for elevating the slasher scenario into some kind of legendary performance art.

Leslie (Nathan Baesel in a charming and affable performance), the subject of a student documentary, is a young man who aspires to these killers' iconographic status, and is in the process of planning a batch of murders that would equate to his first movie (which Behind the Mask effectively is). In a traditional slasher, the reveal of the face behind the mask is a climactic glimpse, but here we start with the killer fully revealed, rather normal, and very talkative. He studies the arts of magic, stealth and escape and trains vigorously, all to be prepared to create the illusion of being an omnipresent, sometimes apparently dead lurching predator. The supernatural spree killer as a very human, and chatty, extreme athlete is a refreshing and funny idea. In contrast to the silent boogeyman he is preparing to become, the Leslie of the documentary is very much an enthusiastic "dude," eager to boast about all the tricks he's preparing.

Leslie is well versed and reverent in the ritualistic conventions of a classic 80s slasher, and also loves to talk about them. He stalks and selects his cast of victims to type, giddily celebrating the emergence of his "Ahab" (the Donald Pleasance archetype, a representative of good intent on pursuing and thwarting the evil killer, played here by Robert Englund) and obsessing over his designated "survivor girl" (I always heard the phrase "final girl" from genre scholars such as John Kenneth Muir) whom he believes will go through a rite of passage from innocence to experience and have a final showdown with him. He scouts his location and does extensive preparation (nailing windows shut, rigging the electricity, chopping down sturdy tree branches, and treating potential weapons). He fabricates and embellishes a creepy backstory. When he gets into the Freudian imagery and psychological symbolism of the spectacle he is manufacturing, the film effectively becomes an essay on slasher conventions and subtext. This is probably the best part of the movie, as fascinating as several literary analyses of the genre, but presented in a cinematic way with an amusing first person narrator who is actually engineering the carnage.

When the film's final act drops the documentary context and becomes the horror movie Leslie has been seen plotting, it is not exactly terrifying. The conventions are, after all, more familiar and set in stone than most genres, and Behind the Mask manages only to get through them professionally, rather than make them new again with fantastic or novel execution. The twist that changes the context of the slaughter is clever, but thoroughly predictable by the time it is delivered. This conclusion works, however, for the same reason most successful horror films work: character. After spending an hour getting to know the eager kid just dying to live up to his heroes, it is difficult on some level not to want to see him pull off his scheme and graduate to the ranks of Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers. The same is true of the student film-makers. Initially insufferable, over the course of watching them bumble through their attempts to shoot a documentary, a surprising affection develops for them as well. A competent slasher scenario is greatly elevated by the presence of characters the audience, to some extent, cares about. Existing somewhere in the twilight zone between The Blair Witch Project and a Christopher Guest farce, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon actually finds something new and engaging in meta-horror.