America’s Next Top Murderer
It’s been too long since we had a halfway decent American horror flick that wasn’t a remake.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is better than halfway decent. This low-budget mockumentary is a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-style spoof of slasher flicks, and with the genre so intellectually exhausted, the movie stands out for its deconstructive spark and sense of fun.
The film is set in the hermetic world of slasher flicks, full of small towns that have been terrorized by the likes of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger. Aspiring tv reporter Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) thinks she’s got the story on the next legendary psycho. He is the titular Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), and she conducts a series of interviews with the murderer-to-be as he prepares to go on the killing spree that will make him as famous as those characters.
If this story sounds like a rip-off of Scream and The Blair Witch Project, the movie itself seldom feels derivative and often plays like a lethally twisted Christopher Guest comedy. Leslie is a homicidal maniac, but under Taylor’s questioning, he hilariously reveals himself as a stuck-up actor, with his self-absorbed vanity and touchy-feely pretentiousness. He lets her news crew in on his “process” as he trains for his role by kickboxing in his backyard. (“I have to do so much cardio. It’s insane.”) The funniest scene is when the killer goes all weepy — while wearing scary clown makeup — as he contemplates his dream coming true: “This is like Christmas for me! I’m so happy!” Funny and frightening is a difficult combination to pull off, and Baesel does an extraordinary job of it.
A jokey premise like this might wear thin at feature length, but director/co-writer Scott Glosserman keeps it fresh by having Leslie jab at the slasher genre from all angles, pointing out how teen victims ignore obvious means of escape, concocting a bogus backstory involving all the old standbys (rape, child abuse, and a lynch mob), and musing on the phallic symbolism of slasher-flick heroines arming themselves with long blunt instruments. (“You watch all those movies, you never see her defeat the killer with a dinky little gun.”) Glosserman also proves himself a flexible stylist, dropping the pseudo-documentary format on occasion and doing a good impersonation of a bad straight-up slasher flick as he follows Leslie’s hand-picked “survivor girl” (Kate Lang Johnson). Scott Wilson turns up as a retired killer who mentors Leslie and hails Jason, Michael, and Freddy for “changing the business” and “taking it to a whole other level.”
The movie does turn predictable when Taylor and her crew go from documenting Leslie’s murders to becoming his targets. Even this, though, showcases the ingeniousness with which Behind the Mask fulfills the genre’s conventions even while sending them up. The comic business in the film’s first half lends ferocity and urgency to the final sequences, and there’s even an unexpectedly moving moment when Taylor encounters a terrified jock and his cheerleader girlfriend and realizes that these auxiliary characters exist only to be killed. “You don’t matter,” she tells them, with more than a trace of pity. Wow, existential angst in a slasher flick! This is like Christmas for me! I’m so happy!
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Starring Nathan Baesel and Angela Goethals. Directed by Scott Glosserman. Written by Scott Glosserman and David Stieve. Rated R. Now playing.