Judge Adam Arseneau would make a great serial killer, except for all the cardio needed to catch those fleeing cheerleaders.
"You have no idea how much cardio I have to do. It's
A tongue-in-cheek breakdown of the horror genre, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a faux-documenary examination into the making of an iconic horror figure. Paying homage to horror legends like Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, Behind the Mask gives rise to the newest star on the scene, Leslie Vernon—except that Jason never had his own documentary crew following him around as he prepared for his night of carnage.
Facts of the Case
Nobody appreciates what goes into making an iconic horror legend. It takes years of preparation to build up a legendary backstory, months of planning, stalking victims, reading medical books, preparing tools, plotting escape routes, choosing victims, and cardio—you have no idea. After all, all your victims are going to be running at full speed away from you, and you have to stay cool and look like you're just walking towards them, but still somehow keep pace.
Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel, Invasion) knows what goes into making a Freddy Krueger, a Jason Voorhees, or a Michael Myers. In fact, his name will soon be just as infamous. His victims-to-be, teenagers of the sleepy town of Glen Echo, Md., will soon know his name. So confident of his success, in fact, Vernon even invited a documentary crew over to film the month leading up to his triumphant emergence.
Taylor (Angela Goethals, 24) is the graduate student covering Vernon's rise to glory. Filming a documentary about villainous serial killers terrorizing small towns, the documentary crew tentatively follow Vernon around on his day-to-day activates in preparation for his "return" to Glen Echo—stalking his prey, setting up locations, training, and so on.
The crew likes Vernon; he is a completely normal and likeable fellow—genial, friendly, a bit goofy, like somebody who should work at a day care center with children. Vernon, likewise, is happy to share his trade secrets with the eager grad students, to have someone appreciate all the hard work and energy that goes into creating an evening of carnage. Oh sure, legendary figures like Jason, Freddy, and Michael might make killing a lot of people look easy, but that is just a testament to their professionalism and skill. A lot of hard work goes into killing people!
But when Vernon finally begins to move in on his chosen victim Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson, Echoboom) and her friends, Taylor and the crew begin to suffer some moral, professional, and ethical anxiety. Can they really sit by and watch Vernon become the very murderer they were sent to make a documentary about?
Though its myriad of mediocre sequels has watered down its impact, there was a time when Scream was considered a brilliant masterstroke of cinematic horror, not because it was particularly scary, but because of how it totally made fun of itself. It knew how horror films were supposed to behave and, rather than make another boring slasher film identical to the rest, it turned the genre on its head, reversing audience expectations and giving birth to a new subgenre: the self-referential horror film. Like-minded cult directors like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson had dipped their toes into such waters previously, but never before had a mainstream film been so blatantly tongue-in-cheek, so sardonic in its simultaneous praising and mocking of its own genre. Scream managed to be scary, funny, and ironic at the same time, and soon, other films like The Blair Witch Project would manipulate the genre further, pushing it into new reams of postmodernism—and make stink! ing buckets of cash in the process.
Enter Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the newest film to pay homage to such genre-bending horror. For fans of the old-fashioned slasher films, Behind the Mask is like an insider's joke, a completely outrageous riff on all the stupid conventions that make horror movies utterly preposterous (and yet thoroughly compelling). If you thought Scream was self-aware, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Behind the Mask is a complete and utter deconstruction of the tropes of horror films, systematically disassembling every reoccurring plot device, horror tradition, and cheesy outcome as educational fodder, analyzing it and using it to construct an entirely postmodern horror film, utterly self-aware of its own absurdity, narrating to a documentary camera crew about the art of killing.
This "documentary filmmakers vs. crazed killer" idea isn't anything particularly original—more than a few pages are borrowed from Rémy Belvaux's Man Bites Dog and other such films—but this is kind of the point being made here: very little about slasher films is original. Behind the Mask approaches the art of the horror movie as a postmodern graduate thesis, deconstructing every aspect and analyzing the conventions, the underlying symbolism, the rules and religion of the horror film, all sardonically and with more than a trace of sarcasm. Ever wonder why the heroine in a horror film always hides in a closet, and the killer never seems to notice? Oh, he notices all right—but the closet is a designated "safe place." It symbolizes the womb, you see. There are rules to this, people. Try and keep up.
Put yourself in the mind of a slasher villain. After selecting your location (an abandoned farmhouse), you have to lure a group of teenagers over to drink and have sex, keeping containment of said screaming teenagers by eliminating exits, rigging fuses in buildings to kill the lights on command, pre-loading the flashlights with dead batteries, sabotaging all the available weaponry in the house to malfunction on use, cutting tree branches to break if anyone climbs out onto them, and on and on. Plus, don't forget the cardio required to train and keep up with young nubile teens in their prime, fueled by adrenaline, running at full speed. Hard work indeed!
Such delicious irony is the backbone of the film. Behind the Mask actually exists in a world where Jason and Freddy and Michael and every other slasher terrorizing small sleepy towns actually are real. Vernon is our guide through the methodical breakdown and build up to a teenage slaughterfest, illustrating exactly how detail-oriented a killer needs to be to successfully engineer an orgy of death. Leave any variable to chance, and you could suddenly lose control of the entire situation and get arrested, which is the most shameful act of all. You need to leave a survivor alive to spread your infamy and escape unscathed, so you can come back again. Vernon has studied the art, the craft that goes into making an infamous name at the art of carnage. Any fool can kill a lot of people, but coming back again and again, becoming a local legend to be feared—ah, well, that's the rub. Such thinking was a "radical change in philosophy," as one retired killer professes i! n the film, and it changed the whole business.
What makes Behind the Mask work so well is its obvious intellectual fascination and appreciation for the slasher genre. For every sly joke, it offers up serious examination into the cinematic genre, focusing its attention on why audiences love them so. One would think that having every aspect spelled out in full detail on screen would somehow ruin the effect, but in fact, it has the opposite effect—it makes them more exciting, more impressive to behold. It allows you to see films in a new light. For everything good, there must be evil, and Vernon chooses to act as a deliberate counterbalance to all things good and pure. Guys like Vernon do what they do to cultivate fear like a crop. It takes years of work, constant attention, watering, and maintenance, in order to produce a fruitful yield, so to speak. The subject is played for deadpan humor, for certain, but a surprising amount of introspection and quality analysis also exists in Behind the Mask. This is a th! inking man's slasher film, which up until now was quite the contradiction in terms.
Most of the movie is done in faux-documentary style, setting up the backstory, the Vernon mythology, and the methodology of planning the murders. Only in the last 30 minutes does Behind the Mask give in to its desires and actually enter its own horror movie, breaking away from the camera and actually becoming a "real" movie, which it does with barely constrained glee and enthusiasm. The ending is not exactly unpredictable for horror aficionados, but is pulled off convincingly and with strong execution.
Baesel plays Vernon with such open enthusiasm and friendliness that it almost feels difficult to see him in the role of crazed killer, a deliberate performance, and one that works very well in his favor. It is amusing and challenging to see such a nice person in the role so often associated with mute, hulking, supernatural monsters. Perhaps Michael Myers would be a nice guy to hang out with and play canasta with, if only you got to know him. Maybe Jason just needs a hug. Keep an eye out for Vernon's "Ahab"—the good citizen that comes to the rescue of the victim and tries to fight the forces of evil—played by horror legend Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street), best known for playing Freddy Krueger. His screen time is sadly limited, but his presence is commanding, and almost feels affirming, as if verifying that, yes, this movie has the credibility it speaks of.
Technically, Behind the Mask looks and sounds great on DVD, at least part of the time. The documentary portion of the film shot on DV is appropriately grainy and "documentary" looking, with washed-out colors and murky blacks. Once the "film" portion of the movie kicks in, the fidelity ramps up to proper film, with deep black levels, sharp detail, and nicely saturated colors. Both a 5.1 and 2.0 stereo transfer are included in terms of audio, and like the video, split between the two portions of the film—the documentary portions are appropriately dialogue-centric, with no music or other dramatic effects, and a slight undercurrent of environmental hissing. But once the film kicks in, the bass track explodes with deep-pounding low end and an eerie horror-styled score, with great use of rear environmental channels. The stereo track is meek in comparison to the full surround treatment—no "oomph" behind it—but does the job well enough. For a ! modest-budget indie horror film, Behind the Mask has a top-notch presentation.
A commentary track is included with the four primary cast members, actors Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Britain Spellings, and Ben Pace. All four laugh and joke and clearly had a ball making the film, though they have a tendency to all talk at once and drown one another out. Director Scott Glosserman does not participate on the commentary track, but does provide an optional commentary on a series of deleted and extended scenes, which is a nice touch. We get about seven minutes of deleted scenes and 20 minutes of extended scenes. Glosserman approaches his comments from an intellectual examination of his film and underlying philosophy, which is great for people looking for a bit more meat.
In addition, we get a 30-minute "making of" documentary that goes behind the scenes on-set with cast and crew, as well as a six-minute feature discussing casting Behind the Mask and showing screen tests for various actors and actresses. Both are very well done, clearly filmed deliberately during the creation of the film, and quite detailed, especially the "making of," created like a video diary by director Glosserman, touching on scouting, storyboarding, editing, and virtually every other aspect of the film's creation. We also get some trailers and a copy of the screenplay in PDF format, viewable via a computer's DVD-ROM drive—a nice touch. Keep an eye out for the Easter egg on this screen, which I stumbled upon by accident. This is a great amount of material for a single-disc release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One thing not immediately clear about Behind the Mask is the original motivation behind Taylor and her team. If they were serious about making a documentary about legendary horror figures terrorizing small towns, why sign up with one? Did they think Vernon was a joke? If so, why waste so much time with him? If they thought he was serious, why would they put themselves in such a precarious situation?
Regardless of how you try and approach it, a bunch of grad students filming a serial killer preparing for work doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Not that it needs to, mind you, as this slightly unbelievable premise itself is the key to unlocking all the cleverness that makes Behind the Mask great. But for a film as intelligent and thought out as Behind the Mask, it seems kind of a logical leap.
Refreshing and original, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon may be the cleverest horror film you will see this year. Rather than play within the established slasher horror film rules, the film systematically analyzes and deconstructs them, lays them out for autopsy, and rebuilds the genre from the ground up. The result is a film that feels as vibrant and fresh as any horror film in recent memory.
The film made little impact theatrically, which is a shame. Perhaps it was deemed too clever for the masses, but not for you smart DVD folk out there. You guys will know a great film when you see one.
Leslie Vernon is found not guilty, but sadly his body seems to have vanished from the morgue…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary with Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Britain Spellings, and Ben Pace
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