Post Millennial Trauma: Behind the Mask- The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Now I’ve escaped from the more fallow years of the 21st Century, it’s time to look at some of the better horror films of the last decade. To start of this nice easy run in to the present day, I’ve got an absolutely cracking little film, and one that very nearly counts as an undiscovered gem. I give you Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
I’m a bit wary of this review, because this is a film that I genuinely love. However, I’ve shown it to several peopleand there has been a near universal “fail” given to it(Droid excepted). I actually don’t agree with the reason that’s always given- in fact I think they’re completely wrong, but the level of unfair slating that this film, and by extension me, has taken is quite completely unprecedented and grossly unfair.
Behind the Mask is a clever, low-budget indie film. The film opens with a faux-newsreader voiceover, narrated by Taylor (Angela Goethals), detailing the many crimes of Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Chuckie, and Freddie Krueger as if they were real serial killer atrocities. This is the main conceit of the film- it’s a mockumentary, and will chart the efforts of a three students in their attempt to capture on film the inner workings of the supernatural serial killer. They believe that they have unearthed a new one: Leslie Vernon, supremely performed by Nathan Baesel.
When we meet Leslie, actually, he’s immensely likable. He gladly agrees to the interviews, introduces them to his friends (legend of “The Business” Eugene, played by Scott Wilson and his attractive wife Jamie, played by Bridgett Newton), and walks our nosy film crew through the ins and outs of the key set pieces that you see in every slasher film. He shows them how he stages it in advance, the path that the heroes must take, how he effectively cheats, explains the sexual imagery that is so essential to the whole mythology, the necessary character traits of his victim, and brilliantly, why an “Ahab is a wonderful thing”.
Eventually, the film plays out in arguably the only way it can play out with our intrepid wannabe Pulitzer winners being forced into the game and hunted by the clearly psychotic serial killer that they’ve been chumming up to.
This is an absolutely storming little film. Firstly, it’s exquisitely written. The dialogue is sharp, particularly the exchanges between Leslie and Taylor such as when they’re discussing such essential matters as Leslie’s exercise regime:
Leslie: You have no idea how much cardio I have to do. It’s ridiculous.
Taylor: Why so much?
Leslie: Well, I have to be able to run like a frickin’ gazelle without getting winded. Plus, there’s that whole thing about making it look like you’re walking while everybody else is running their asses off. And I gotta stay with ‘em! It’s tough, man!
The whole film is full of touches like this. It has been argued to me that it veers a little too far into the realms of postmodernism, but I disagree with this assessment- it’s entirely necessary for a mockumentary to go to these lengths, in Best in Show, for example, we’re exposed to the minutiae of the owner’s pathetic lives, and part of the reason for the success of that film is that it does show the viewer everything. I’d argue that it’s even more essential here- Leslie has promised to reveal all the secrets of his trade- we have to know things like he’s already nailed up all the windows on the ground floor, and that stoners are good to “pad your numbers” with.
Secondly, it’s extremely well acted. Baesel as already mentioned is hugely likable in the lead and the success of this film is, in many ways down , down to how charming and charismatic he is. It’s deeply wrong, and we’re aware of this, but we sort of sneakily want his murderous quest to be successful. That isn’t to say he can’t be frightening on occasion, because he can, but essentially the film relies far more on his charm than his ability to menace. Goethals is good as Taylor, and her crew (Doug and Todd) are both spot-on performances from Ben Pace and Brittain Spellings. Kate Lang Johnson is good as the survivor girl playing to type, and the cannon fodder teenagers are all played adequately. However, this is a film where the cameos deserve mention- Horror legends Zelda Rubinstein and Robert Englund both play minor roles in the film and both seem to be really enjoying themselves.
Now for the big complaint that I keep hearing: the last act. Let me state in advance that I completely disagree with this, and I’ll explain why. The final act comes, and it is by now obvious that Taylor and crew cannot let Leslie go through with this. It’s at this point that Taylor makes the call, and Behind the Mask finds another gear. The camera is put down and we watch the rest of the film as a conventional horror movie, complete with lighting, score, jump scares etc, albeit one that plays out exactly as we were told it was going to. The complaint that I’ve now heard 4 times is that this is too jarring, that the film becomes “crap” because it transforms into a run-of-the-mill slasher. I personally, think this is hogwash for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, the first two acts of this film were set up for this sequence. The decision by director Scott Glosserman to abandon the hand-held camera and film a conventional horror movie is, I believe the correct one. We are aware of what is going to happen as we’ve already been told and if the film didn’t finish in this way then it would, frankly, be a colossal gip. Secondly, it’s actually great fun watching it play out- we know and the characters know how it has to go, and it’s genuinely tense seeing if they can get out of it. Thirdly, and most importantly, when horror movies that use the camera device come to the sequences involving physical exertion, I actually find it aggravating. In Diary of the Dead (awful film) I was literally screaming “Put that fucking camera down dickhead” at the scream, not to mention that when characters run the camera jerks around all over the place and is both disconcerting and jarring. I think this approach is far superior. Finally, I simply don’t understand the complaint- this is something that happens several times during the documentary scenes- we have to see what he’s doing, and how it plays out as a film (noticeably the library scene) so to piss and moan when it comes to fruition finally strikes me as wrong-headed and intentionally so.
Overall, this is an absolutely storming film. It’s funny, scary and hugely entertaining. The real joy of it, though, and this is the principle reason for the extremely high rating I’m giving it, is the central performance from Baesel. Give this man more work, now, he’s simply magnificent here. If you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, then dig it out, you won’t be disappointed.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a fabulous and hugely enjoyable film. Given the amount of hacks out there shitting all over horror as a genre, it’s really pleasant to see a first time director turn out such an accomplished and frankly awesome little film. I hope Scott Glosserman goes on to make many more great horror films- the man has serious potential and I give Behind the Mask 3 and a half psycho killer masks out of 4.
Oh and hang around over the end credits. It’s worth it- because Psycho Killer is an awesome song, and the very end of the film always makes me laugh.
Until next time,