Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie VernonReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/19/07 17:54:32
I’d heard a lot over the past year about this little film called “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.” My colleagues lucky enough to catch a screening at one of the many film festivals that featured it did more than just rave - they treated it as a great personal discovery, something truly special that needed to be shared with the world, and fast. It was too damn good to be kept a secret, and now, having finally seen the film myself, I must add my voice to the choir. This is one hell of a movie.It is, above all, a smart film, one that understands the tiniest nuances of both comedy and horror, and how to mix the two. It knows all about the sheer movie-ness of movies, taking all those vintage clichés and deconstructing them in a way not seen since the original “Scream.” But to compare it to Wes Craven’s modern classic would be to make it seem like a retread, which it is most definitely not. “Behind the Mask” is something you’ve never seen before, even when it’s toying with the very notion of things you’ve seen before.
The film, directed by Scott Glosserman and written by Glosserman and David J. Stieve (both newcomers), plays out on two distinct levels. One level is a mockumentary in which a young journalism student (Angela Goethals) and her camera crew interview Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a boisterous fella who’s about to set out on his first serial killing spree. Right from the start, we’re tossed in a world where Freddy and Jason are real and where young men find the calling to join “the business of fear.”
It’s a perfect parody of every slasher flick you’ve ever seen. Leslie - whose affability and enthusiasm go wildly against the very idea of the silent maniac (until, of course, he puts on the killer’s mask) - is eager to share the tricks of the trade. What, you think Michael Myers just happens to have everything work out for him just so? Heck no, my friend. These killers need to plan way in advance. It’s hard work to make sure the horny teens will sneak upstairs to get it on, or the heroine will escape into the barn. And keeping fit? Hoo boy! As Leslie explains while working out: “You have no idea how much cardio I have to do.”
We meet Eugene (Scott Wilson), Leslie’s “retired” friend and mentor, and the two joke about old times in between chunks of solid advice. Eugene’s a pro from the old days, back when “it was all about quantity.” He’s watching the youngster’s back, doublechecking the master plan: “You got your red herring all worked out?” he asks, wondering if maybe the heroine knows a janitor she can blame for a while.
There’s also a rundown of the horror heroine as a stock character. Leslie’s analysis of why victims do what they do and why they ultimately succeed isn’t merely a one-note satire of the genre - it’s actually a deeply serious, articulate, and accurate explanation of the horror movie as modern mythology. It’s not enough for this movie to joke about the empowerment of women. Here, we also learn why such things happen in these flicks, and what they mean.
Shot on digital video, these documentary segments show us all the behind-the-scenes effort that it takes to pull off a good massacre. We then switch to the “movie” portion of the movie, shot on film, giving the proceedings a glossy sheen, with Gordy Haab’s thumping horror-movie-music score pounding on the soundtrack. The camera sweeps around its cast, and the actors deliver hackneyed dialogue exactly as Leslie predicted. When Zelda Rubinstein pops in as the librarian eager to tell all the details of the Leslie Vernon legend, or when Robert Englund appears as the dedicated lone-wolf psychologist (an “Ahab” is the industry term for such a character), we chuckle, watching the script twist its way through every standard horror moment.
All of this is absolutely brilliant in every possible way, a spoof that knows more about its target than most horror filmmakers do themselves, all while never hamming it up. The humor is subtle and dry, and Glosserman and Stieve have created characters that live and breathe in their own world, something most movies like this would never dare attempt. It’s pitch perfect all the way.
And then, well, something even better happens. After learning all the tricks and walking through Leslie’s plan, we then split off into yet another style, one with the same polish as the “movie” portion, yet without the hackneyed dialogue or the corny plotting. The documentary crew have entered the movie world, bringing a cold reality with them. Like the characters in “Scream,” the heroes here either use their knowledge of horror cliché to their advantage or wind up doing the cliché thing anyway, despite their better judgment.
But again, “Behind the Mask” deserves more than “Scream” comparison. It is a brave, bold, brilliantly original work all its own. The work that went into carefully balancing all three styles of storytelling to put forward a single tale is intricate and intelligent in a way few movies ever are. Glosserman proves himself to be an expert filmmaker on his very first swing.
Obviously the guy is a huge fan of horror movies, or, at least, has a terrific understanding of how they work. But more important than his mastery of genre formula or his expertise juggling multiple visual styles is his handling of the cast. With the exception of the horror legend cameos (Kane Hodder also makes a brief appearance), the principal cast hails mainly from a theater background, as does Glosserman himself. This helps make “Behind the Mask” an actor’s project, with unexpectedly sharp detail placed on character. The result is outstanding: Goethals finds the right amount of heart as the journalist with a growing conscience, and Wilson is both eerily fascinating and quietly hilarious as the veteran stalker.
And then there’s Baesel, whose work here is a revelation. His enthusiasm and friendliness hit all the right notes, making us root for the guy, while his coldness once in killer mode is something that’s genuinely creepy. It’s a performance that demands (and deserves) attention, the sort of role that makes you instantly have a new favorite actor.So yes, all my colleagues were right. “Behind the Mask” is a mini-masterpiece. And it’s not just for horror fans, either; anyone with a sincere interest in witty, innovative genre-mixing will have a great time here, in one of the best indie films in recent memory.
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