Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

| March 21, 2007

What would happen if we lived in a world where characters like Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers actually existed? What if a young man looked to the homicidal exploits of these masked killers and aspired to join their iconic status? And what if that young man allowed an overzealous grad student to make a documentary about his preparations for his inaugural slaughter? That is the clever premise that supplies this little indie film with more chuckles and honestly creepy moments than most of the bloated Hollywood comedies and horror films of the last few years.
Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel, TV’s Invasion) is a handsome, athletic and slightly goofy guy who just wants to kill teenagers. If they’re stoned, they die. Even better if they’re having or just had sex. He has a back-story, which includes cruel parents right out of a fairy tale and his apparent death as a child caused by the local townspeople. He even has an abandoned ancestral farmhouse next to a fog-draped apple orchard where the local teenagers go to party. In short, he has nearly everything he needs to embark on his killing spree. All he needs is his “survivor girl,” a virgin who is so pure she would never touch a drop of alcohol, smoke pot or give in to the hormonal pleading of her jock boyfriend. He thinks he has found his girl and takes aspiring journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals, Spanglish) and her two (mostly) unseen cameramen along as he trains and prepares for the big night.
Tone is everything in a story like this. Go too far with the satire of slasher films and it becomes overly smug, angering the horror fans in the audience. Go too far with the horror/gore aspect and the potential for the general audience to laugh at the wrong moments becomes great. Writer/Director Scott Glosserman handles this tricky balance with a sure hand. He even pulls off a third act reversal where the film completely drops the mockumentary format and becomes exactly what it has spent an hour poking fun at: a good old-fashioned slasher flick. Instead of spelling disaster for the film, the clichés that the audience are now so familiar with are tweaked just enough to defy expectations and provide some honest scares and surprises as Leslie reveals his true reasons for allowing the documentary crew to follow him.
The cast is uniformly excellent, never winking at the camera. They all play their parts as straight as if they were in an episode of Masterpiece Theater. Baesel and Goethals deliver such natural performances as their relationship veers from adversarial to an unspoken attraction, the film starts to take on the feeling of a real documentary in a way that rivals even the best of Christopher Guest’s work. Scott Wilson (Junebug) hits just the right note of menace and grandfatherly affection as a retired killer who acts as Leslie’s mentor.
The rest of the cast works well in intentionally under-developed roles that are used to separate the real world from the slasher world. Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) overacts like Donald Pleasence on crystal meth as Doc Halloran, a psychiatrist who Leslie refers to as “My Ahab.” Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) spouts exposition in her distinctly squeaky voice as town librarian, Mrs. Collinwood. Newcomer Kate Lang Johnson is pretty and vapid as Kelly, Leslie’s potential survivor girl.
The film is as impressive for its nimbleness at avoiding the pitfalls of the mockumentary genre as it is for all the right notes it hits. Despite the subject matter, the film never lets itself become overly cynical or sadistic (unlike the similarly plotted Man Bites Dog, which was so nihilistic it was nearly impossible to sit through). The humor is in the details, which are presented subtly. The filmmakers trust that the audience will get the jokes and continue on the ride.
Behind the Mask is playing in limited release across the country. It might be a little harder to find, but it’s definitely worth the search. It’s a comedy and horror film that you can enjoy and still feel good about yourself in the morning. That alone is worth the price of admission.

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