Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Rated R for horror violence, language, some sexual content and brief drug use
Score: 4 out of 5
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a mockumentary horror-comedy about an aspiring slasher villain, never made a particularly big splash outside of a cult fandom. Which is a shame, because it is an exceptional example of both those genres. In a fusion of the horror parody of Scream and the plot of Man Bites Dog, this is an affectionate jab at the slasher genre told from the point of view of the killer, outlining just how much work and preparation, both physical and mental, it would realistically take to do what these guys do. While its low-budget nature makes it sometimes feel fairly rough around the edges, it packs plenty of creativity into its unique look at one of horror's most timeworn subgenres.
The film is set in a world where many of the great '80s slasher villains all existed in the real world, but as human serial killers and mass murderers. While many slashers flared out after their first killing spree, the legends -- guys like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger -- became so notorious that their legends attributed supernatural abilities to them. Our protagonists, college student and aspiring journalist Taylor Gentry and her cameramen Doug and Todd, are filming a documentary about one such aspiring slasher, Leslie Vernon, who agrees to let Taylor interview him and study his method so that he can start building his own legend. As he prepares for his inaugural killing spree while showing off all the tricks of the trade, Taylor and her crew get sucked deeper into his plan, and soon learn that Leslie has plenty more secrets that he isn't so keen on sharing with them... including what role they play in all of it, especially once they start having second thoughts about the whole thing.
The film's style is plain to see from about five minutes in, as Taylor arrives at Leslie's house and frequently spots him out of the corner of her eye behind haystacks and in windows. While in most horror movies this sort of gag is used to build tension, here Taylor is racing around Leslie's yard trying to get an interview with him, and is more frustrated than scared by how he keeps vanishing. This is a film built around the conceit of pulling back the curtain on a horror movie monster, mining its humor from exploring the minutiae of how so many slasher cliches come to be, while juxtaposing the lifelong passion of a man devoted to his task with the fact that said passion is murdering people. Leslie's able to relentlessly pursue his victims, all while making it look like he's walking, because he keeps himself in peak physical condition with a mountain of cardio. He rigs the house where he's to carry out his rampage so that the hapless teens have no chance of escape, nailing windows shut, removing the spark plugs from the automobiles, and attaching a remote control to the circuit breaker so he can cut the power with the press of a button. His motivations, explored further when we meet the retired veteran slasher Eugene and his wife Jamie, take on an almost religious quality; slashers like him see their job as creating monsters for society to remind it of what is good in the world, represented by the archetype of the "survivor girl", the virginal heroine who the slasher selects to defeat him in the end after being metaphorically "made a woman" by her ordeal. Even the most banal cliches of slashers are given fun twists and justifications. This is a movie made for, and by, longtime horror fans who have thought about and discussed these sorts of things about slashers for years, and whether you're a rabid consumer of the "dead teenager movies" of the '80s or more inclined to agree with Sidney Prescott's assessment of the genre ("What's the point? They're all the same..."), you'll get plenty of laughs out of this.
Where this movie truly excels, however, is in the fact that it's about more than just skewering slasher tropes. Okay, it's not about a whole lot more than that, but it still serves up some very creative twists on the basic premise courtesy of how Leslie ultimately reacts to the fact that he's the subject of a documentary. The makers of this film, Scott Glosserman and David J. Stieve, picked out a pair of outstanding actors for the two leads, Leslie Vernon and Taylor Gentry. Nathan Baesel plays Leslie as a guy who clearly thinks himself an ordinary dude who's just doing his job, juxtaposing that with the horrifying nature of said job to great effect. He actually comes off as charming at first glance, making it clear to see how Taylor and her crew can warm up to him and almost forget that he's planning a murder spree. Angela Goethals, meanwhile, creates a dogged investigative journalist as Taylor, a grown-up Nancy Drew-meets-Diane Sawyer who feels like she could easily be the "survivor girl" in her own slasher movie. Both Leslie and Taylor have plenty of layers to them, and while the film is filled with jokes about the slasher genre, their chemistry and conflict is played seriously. How neither Baesel nor Goethals went on to bigger and better things, I have no idea. Special props also go to Scott Wilson as Eugene, the retired former slasher who serves as both Leslie's mentor and a key source of info on "the industry" for Taylor, as well as genre veterans Robert Englund and Zelda Rubenstein in brief but fun cameos as Leslie's "Ahab" (the Dr. Loomis figure who's hunting the villain down) and the old local who knows about the legend of Leslie Vernon.
The actors playing the disposable teenagers, however, are sadly noticeable with their alternatively wooden and overwrought performances. The most notable of the bunch given her greater screen time was Kate Lang Johnson, who plays Leslie's survivor girl Kelly with a theatricality that crosses the line into camp. Likewise, once the actual slashing begins in the third act, it isn't all that scary, in terms of either generating tension or (apart from one gore gag involving a post digger) supplying blood and guts. While it does provide some great resolution to the story threads that had been set up prior, has some great jokes as we witness Leslie and Taylor forced to adapt to the situation, and overall works well as a finale for the movie, it just lacks the "oomph" that could've put it, and the film as a whole, over the top into the realm of the classics.
The Bottom Line
A fairly goofy, but always entertaining horror-comedy romp that succeeds on the strength of smart writing and two great lead performances. While horror fans will undoubtedly get the most mileage out of it, it's still a fun watch even if you can't stand the slasher genre.