Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-03-25 14:24
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Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 27th, 2018

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)



The movie:

Scream really did a number on slashers. Its release was more of a detonation that turned the genre inside-out, exposing all of its clichés and its unspoken conventions in a way that dictated it would never quite be the same again. The impact was almost immediate, as it ushered in a new era of heightened, sharp-witted horror movies, its influence even spreading as far as the then-unproduced Freddy vs. Jason, as numerous folks involved with that film have noted that Scream’s success briefly impacted that project’s direction. Even a decade after its release, the fallout still lingered, inspiring the likes of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, an appropriately mutated, hyperactive riff on the theme that—in retrospect—was also somehow ahead of its time in its anticipation of the found footage revival and its twisted musings on our fame-obsessed culture.

That’s the hook for Behind the Mask: a man named Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel)—who claims to be the grown-up child of a grisly local legend—is looking to become the next big serial killer. Eager to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Michael, he’s contacted a documentary crew led by interviewer Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) to capture his exploits. He offers a thorough experience, allowing the crew to watch him pick out and stalk his victim (Kate Lang Johnson) before walking them through the steps he’ll eventually take when staging the same sort of climactic massacre we’ve witnessed in dozens of slasher movies.

Perhaps best described as Scream re-imagined a mockumentary where Randy is both the horror nerd and the killer, Behind the Mask takes its predecessor’s metafictional thread and runs away with it, unraveling it with an impish glee. From the opening scenes, it’s clearly operating in a more farcical realm than Craven’s film does, as we come to realize that those cinematic madmen are actually real in this universe. We watch as Taylor takes us to Crystal Lake, Haddonfield, and Springwood, recounting the gruesome deeds of their infamous citizens. We watch as she tries to have a word with the latest resident at 1428 Elm Street (Kane Hodder in a terrific cameo), who swiftly slams the door in her face when she asks about his old neighbor, Frederick. You sense immediately what sort of film this going to be: tongue-in-cheek but completely reverent of the slasher movie canon that it so desperately wants to join.

It mostly succeeds in doing so, albeit in skittish fashion. Where Scream landed its barbs at the genre with surgical, razor sharp precision, Behind the Mask stabs with a wild, almost reckless enthusiasm. Director Scott Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve aren’t exactly looking to satirize the genre, nor are they landing any new blows beyond Scream’s earlier evisceration. Instead, they’re operating in the sweet spot between satire, parody, and farce: Leslie Vernon is just grounded enough, but not so much that you can take it too seriously. They’re rummaging through the genre’s conventions and scattering them on the floor, having a quick laugh at each of them before plowing forward.

Their mockumentary approach—while not as novel now as it was in 2006—allows them to truly embrace the absurdity of it all. Behind the Mask practically comes with a sort of commentary track embedded within, as the motor-mouthed Leslie is quick to point out all of the clichés and tropes to which he has to adhere to become the next slasher icon. Virgins make for ideal final girls, while dumb jocks and stoners make for perfect body count fodder. Red herrings—here referring to the early victims associated with Leslie’s ultimate target—have to be disposed of in proper order, as does the requisite stalking and mythmaking leading up to a climactic encounter.

Much of Leslie’s knowledge is gleaned from advice dispensed by Eugene (Scott Wilson), a retired serial killer whose notoriety hit its peak in the 70s, back when killers just “hit hard, wiped everybody out, and disappeared…without ever giving thought to coming back.” This old guard stood in stark contrast to the likes of “Jay, Fred, and Mike,” who “lifted it to a whole other level, turning themselves into legends by returning like a curse over and over again.” They “changed the whole business” he notes, making a not-so-oblique reference towards the genre itself of course, reiterating that age-old notion that only bad box office can really keep a maniac down. Asides like this are fun winks (made even more so by Stieve’s own head-canon) towards the genre’s history and evolution, even if they aren’t particularly fresh or insightful.

In the slasher tradition, Leslie’s backstory comes readymade with both a gruesome tale involving vengeful, homicidal townsfolk and a creepy childhood abode situated near an ominous, perpetually fog-drenched grove. If you listen hard enough on a still night under the harvest moon, you might even hear the body of Leslie’s mother dangling from a tree—or, perhaps, not, as Leslie is quick to point out that this is a gag. Behind the Mask is never so self-serious that it can’t take time to upend itself , even. In fact, the film becomes increasingly preoccupied with doing so as it rolls along. Vernon—brought to life with an unsettlingly cocksure and gregarious turn by Baesel—is supremely confident in his deranged vision quest to assume the slasher icon mantle, so much so that he literally walks the crew through his planned massacre.

Not only does this give the film another opportunity to point out conventions (“Here’s the scene where the oversexed teenagers bite it!” “Here’s where two dopey kids will wander to the cellar when the power is cut!”), but it’s also a perfect setup to the film’s topsy-turvy final act. Like Scream itself, Behind the Mask eventually drops its act, becoming a damn fine slasher in the process as Leslie’s plan goes to complete shit. What happens when a slasher movie goes off-script? Well, pretty much the same thing that happens when it’s on-script, actually, since Leslie still manages plenty of mayhem and bloodshed thanks to staging his massacre at a farm full of sharp murder implements. If I’m being honest, Behind the Mask captures the vintage slasher feeling even more potently than Scream, as it just comes across as more authentic: Leslie’s demented hillbilly get-up feels right out of 1982, while composer Gordy Haab’s droning shrieks echo the spirit of Manfredini’s early Friday scores. Plus, the general lo-fi aesthetic replicates the scrappy, gritty nastiness of golden era slashers in a way Scream’s glossy photography couldn’t (not that Craven was exactly aiming to, mind you).

Considering Behind the Mask is a heart-on-its-sleeve love letter to slashers, it’s no surprise that it indulges itself here. Sure, the first two-thirds of the film offer a relatively refreshing take and aesthetic, but any splatter movie worth its salt needs to deliver the gory goods. Leslie Vernon does and then some, as the titular maniac takes up scythes, broken glass, and improvised nooses in realizing his carnage. You also can’t help put respect any slasher that observes the law of Chekov’s gun with a prominently displayed apple grinder that figures heavily into the climax.

Behind the Mask’s initial mockumentary approach also pays off here because it allows the audience to be fully invested in many of the characters. Sure, Leslie’s victims during the massacre are largely (and purposely) disposable, but Angela and her crew grow on you, especially once they finally decide to intervene and stop this madman from butchering the group of innocent dopes he’s targeted. Perhaps predictably, Angela herself is the true survivor girl, eventually proving to be a tough-as-nails badass more than capable of holding her own against Leslie.

Of course, she’s still provided a helping hand from Doc Halloran (Robert Englund), Leslie’s shrink and “Ahab,” the term used in the serial killer business to describe an arch-nemesis that will stop at nothing to defeat evil. Think Dr. Loomis and Michael Myers, two foes with intertwining destinies stretched across several decades of destruction. The filmmakers certainly want you to make that comparison seeing as how Englund is dressed to damn near be Donald Pleasence’s doppelganger—which is delightful, of course, and it’s clear Englund relishes the chance to be on this side of the coin for once. Anyone who’s ever paid attention won’t be surprised to learn he’s damn good at channeling the virtuous righteousness that often defined Loomis. Among other things, Behind the Mask is a fine reminder that Englund is a national treasure completely deserving of a career renaissance: somehow, this represents one of the small handful of films he’s featured in that have been worth a damn for the past decade, an appalling and depressing indictment of how Hollywood sometimes overlooks worthy talent thanks to typecasting.

Not to be outdone or overshadowed, Baesel is the most indelible presence as Leslie Vernon, the wannabe slasher icon who does his damnedest to earn that distinction during the course of the film. He’s so casually sociopathic that he’s completely untethered from what we constitute as reality; however, he’s sort of the perfect avatar for the askew logic of this universe, though, where serial killers charter documentaries to flaunt their gruesome exploits. Then again, this might be one of the film’s sharpest gags: Leslie is totally charismatic and eventually earns the sort of strange admiration we horror fans reserve for our slasher heroes—even as his quest for infamy becomes more and more unhinged. A decade later, this almost tragic longing to be famous by any means necessary and document the process rings even more true in an age where millions of people are scurrying to go viral.

Even if Behind the Mask isn’t explicitly concerned with needling this impulse, the implication lingers around the edges, going so far as to implicate the audience in the process by having them delight in Leslie’s carnage. And if you have any doubts that we’re eating right out of his hands, look no further than the infectious credits sequence, where Talking Heads’s “Psycho Killer” plays over a shot of the attendant charged with performing Leslie’s autopsy milling about a morgue. Our eyes can’t help but fixate on Leslie’s corpse as we will it to rise from the slab, thus fulfilling his slasher villain destiny. At nearly the very last moment, it does so just before the credits slam to black, leaving the audience to crave a sequel to cement Leslie Vernon’s legacy. So far, that follow-up hasn’t arrived yet, but the fact that the possibility still rattles around the horror community a decade later means Leslie Vernon achieved cult icon status, if nothing else.

The disc:

But even if that long-awaited sequel never happens, Scream Factory has done its part to secure Leslie Vernon’s legacy with a nice collector’s edition Blu-ray release. An upgrade from the old Anchor Bay disc, it sports a brand new 2K transfer that ensures the film’s early digital video and 16mm elements sparkle as much as they possibly can. Unsurprisingly, the latter—which takes over when the film drops its mockumentary approach—holds up a bit better, though the DV portions are by no means awful-looking themselves.

Scream has also produced a pair of new supplements, with 30-minute retrospective “Joys and Curses” serving as the headliner. New interviews with Goethals, Stieve, and star Ben Pace are cobbled together here to give a brief overview of the film’s conception, release, and reception. While this isn’t a typical retrospective found on many of Scream’s releases (it appears that these 3 took time out from a convention floor to film their bits), it’s a fine recollection that captures the scrappy, independent nature of a film that’s gone on to become a cult favorite.

Stieve expectedly provides a lot of insight into the film’s creation, noting that he was actually inspired by his own self-doubt over his choice to become a screenwriter when he hatched Leslie Vernon. For him, the film is at least partially about the anxieties some people (even serial killers!) feel about their path in life, an interesting dimension I’d never considered before. Meanwhile, Goethals and Pace focus more on the shoot itself, particularly how fun it was since it was such a tight-knit set. They’re rightfully reverent of the opportunity to work with Robert Englund, taking time to acknowledge his contributions alongside the other performers who don’t appear in this featurette. Everyone involved is also exceedingly grateful to have been part of a film that’s become a favorite in horror circles, something nobody ever expected when they were shooting this little project out in Oregon in 2005.

As such, they all indicate they’d be more than eager to return for that long-rumored sequel, though precious little evidence is offered that it’s in any way imminent. Stieve does discuss some of the roadblocks—particularly how hard it’s been to come up with a story that would allow Leslie and Taylor to cross paths—and points to Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon, a comic project that more or less captures what the sequel would be. This comic is actually the focus of the other new supplement here, a 6-minute interview with artist Nathan Thomas Milliner, who discusses his contribution to bringing Before the Mask to life. More than anything, he explains the grueling process of churning the book out on a regular basis while also showing his appreciation for being tapped by the filmmakers themselves. Not a bad gig, all things considered, especially since Milliner is such a fan of Behind the Mask.

Scream has also ported over the special features from the original Anchor Bay release, and since that disc dropped back in 2007 (back when you could reasonably expect AB to produce some extras), these supplements are rather substantial. A vintage 32-minute making-of gives another look at the film’s production, while six minutes of audition footage give an insight into the casting process. Nearly 30 minutes of deleted scenes (plus an Easter Egg) round out another pretty solid release from Scream Factory, whose recent efforts to highlight these more “contemporary” cult classics is appreciated. Behind the Mask is certainly one of the previous decade’s most memorable slashers, and now it has this canonization to prove it. Now, make sure to go out and buy it so we’ll maybe finally witness Leslie Vernon’s return.
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Horror Reviews
2018-12-10 23:00
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