One of the chief pleasures of watching genre films is to encounter the entry into a particular genre which upholds the rules and yet still manages to find transcendence. The success of folks like Quentin Tarantino, John Frankenheimer, Joss Whedon and Johnnie To is based, at least in part, due to people responding to this on an unconscious level. Call it the ‘Whoa! I haven’t seen that before!’ effect.
The well known slasher horror subgenre kicked off somewhere in the 1970s, rising from the influence of the Italian Giallos, Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. John Carpenter, Wes Craven and the Friday the 13th series of films have the lion-share of credit for popular slasher films which spawned a boatload of less-interesting sequels which, in hindsight, served the chief purpose of making iconic villains out of Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees. The cycle peaked in the 1980s, and was played for knowing and ironic laughs in the 1990s in the Scream and I Know… series of films before being stripped of all vestiges of dignity by the Wayans Brothers’ Scary Movie franchise. Some may argue that there is sort of a rebirth of things as torture-porn with the Hostel and Saw films, but the subgenre is clearly off the rails at this point.
Enter first time director Scott Glosserman, who aims to canonize another slasher icon in a wholly 21st century way: Through the media of documentary exposé and celebrity mythmaking. Watching Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon fuse the fake documentary style of Christopher Guest with the slasher conventions of the subgenre when it was at its peak is one of many of the giddy pleasures on offer. At first glance, this territory was already covered with Rémy Belvaux’s serial killer mock-doc Man Bites Dog or even The Blair Witch Project. However, while these films share the aspect of how far a documentary crew is willing to go to capture a subject in its element; the similarities end there. Belvaux makes a black comedy out of the material and circumstances, and Daniel Myrick goes for an agoraphobia/claustrophobia cautionary tale. Glosserman is clearly in love with ‘the trade’ of creating a horror icon. He sets his film in a world where these icons actually exist as media pseudo-celebrities and the documentary crew of local news interns in the film show the locations of Myers, Kruger and Vorhees territory like a ‘map to the stars’ tour of Hollywood before meeting up with a man who actually aspires to join their famed ranks. Leslie Vernon. Here is where the subtle joy of the film begins to become apparent. Leslie is a pretty normal looking guy. Somewhere in between a young Richard Dean Anderson and Christian Bale, he looks more like one of the frat-boy victims of a slasher than an unstoppable engine of terror. But Leslie knows his stuff like an obsessive screenwriter. Playing up to the camera like the boys from Spinal Tap, or a reality TV program persona, Leslie goes step by step through his dreams, ambitions and plans. These plans are so elaborate and in such depth that those who hate the seeming idiocy of the slasher genre – the fact that the killer walks while the victim runs and still manages to fall prey, that a car never seems to start when needed, the lights go off an inopportune moment, or bodies show up in nonsensical locations (for a cheap jump-scare) when the murder was committed elsewhere – will look upon Leslie not only with respect, but see the genre in a whole new light. Leslie’s obsession is clear just from at the lengths he goes through to build a convincing back-story. Swapping library microfiche and planting Photo-shopped documents are just a few of the tricks of the trade. Nearly all of the films exposition is delivered in a heady 8 minutes or so of from Zelda “Poltergeist” Rubinstein (fittingly to her scene, she is looking more like Yoda in her advancing age than is comfortable). That Leslie is a bit of a philosopher and a blow-hard allows for a hilarious smattering of ‘trade jargon’ such as an Ahab (watch for Robert Englund channeling Donald Pleasance), a Survival Girl, or a Fly-by as well as throw away comments on John Milton, and even Leslie’s pet turtles. A question of his willingness to go through with things, and a testament to the acting ability of Nathan Baesel, is a pitch perfect scene of Leslie going through the wave of emotion while on the cusp of realizing his life-long dream. Tears of joy stream down his face. The scene is played perfectly straight.
At a certain point, the film flips from the naturally lit handheld digital video of the documentary into the slick atmospherics of a horror film and proceeds to deliver exactly what is promised: an iconic slasher film. Isn’t it nice when the ambitions of the filmmakers mirror the ambitions of their lead character? The success of the film is that in allowing us a look behind the curtain then to proceed to deliver the ‘big show’ and still having it come together seamlessly. If this was not enough, Glosserman injects the documentary crew into the ‘film’ with full knowledge of Leslie’s plans. Seen now in the vernacular of a horror film, the charismatic and talky Leslie shifts fully into character and is hell bent on placing his name in the ranks of the greats even if he has to deal with if the instruments for his easy path to mass-exposure now stand in the way.
Rare is the film that can poke fun at the genre to which it belongs, while simultaneously being one the better entries therein (Glosserman never shows a lack of respect.) Even more unusual is the film which should please both the lovers and haters of said genre. If Behind the Mask does not break into the mainstream, it is because it is too damn smart for the room. Also, let this be a lesson to horror filmmakers out there: Screenplay! Screenplay! Screenplay! Behind the Mask has a winner of a script. For fans who worship at the altar of the slasher flick, this is a call to ‘Run, don’t walk to the nearest cinema’ showing this film.
…And stay for the end credits.