Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
2007Director: Scott Glosserman
Cast: Nathan Baesel, Robert Englund, Angela Goethals
big-breasted girl cringes alone in the dark, and the creepy soundtrack insists that evil is afoot, probably wielding a knife or a chainsaw. Branches rustle, shadows loom in the distance. Behind the teenager, the door to a brightly lit building slams shut, sealing her doom. Don’t be fooled by the conventional beginning to this horror show. We’ll revisit this scene later, but the second time, the killer will give us the inside scoop. With the smile of a proud father, he’ll lead us through his painstaking routine, show us the wires he uses to perform his illusions, and carefully choreograph the anticipated movements of his prey.
After this prologue, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon shifts into documentary style (this technique is half-heartedly committed to, as the film switches indiscriminately between pseudo-documentary footage and traditional omniscient narrative). A camera crew visits sites that, to a certain segment of fandom, may be familiar—Elm Street, Camp Crystal Lake, and Haddonfield. These are, of course, where the Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween series take place. And though these are the bona fide locations, shot in broad daylight with locals glaring at the camera, this documentary inhabits an alternate reality, where these places were actually haunted by vicious murders. The faux-filmmakers have one foot in Hollywood, but they evidently haven’t seen the infamous movies themselves. The narrator, in tones of hushed excitement, tells as rumor the story of Freddy Krueger, who reportedly “kills his victims in their sleep!”
Continuing this tradition, the journalists visit a waterfall where a young boy, after allegedly murdering his parents, was in turn killed by angry villagers many years ago. That boy was Leslie Vernon, and Behind the Mask is the story of the crew that seeks him out. After they arrive at a creepy house and sight menacing figures in abandoned windows, Leslie himself appears in a jolt of a jump scene. But then, all sense of ambush abruptly disappears.
Leslie is a cheerful and intensely likeable young man (the charisma stems from the enthusiastic performance by Nathan Baesel), whose life passion happens to be serial killing. He lacks morbidity of any kind, excepting offhand confessions of eating his pets. He takes a professional pride in his work, carefully prepping his murder sites and analyzing which persons to murder so as to artfully raise the tension. “You have no idea how much cardio I have to do,” he complains, a broad grin on his face. Thus far, he’s rather like Ted Bundy, disconcerting and witty, but hardly unusual.
Far more surreal, and therefore amusing, is the documentary gang, headed by the pretty Taylor (Angela Goethals). She, needless to say, disapproves of the murders. But her disapproval, however genuine, is hilariously understated. As the group stakes out potential prey in a schoolyard, Taylor gently derides Leslie as if he were merely scoping out underage ass. During a visit to Leslie’s old friend and inspiration, a retired killer (played by Robert Englund, famed for playing Freddy Krueger), Leslie shamefacedly admits, “she’s not entirely on board with why we do what we do.”
They do what they do, the killers explain, because the world requires a balance of good and evil. They rejoice when a Captain Ahab figure—a prophet of doom that stands for all the good in the universe (um, did they mean Captain Elijah?)—appears to foil their plans. Indeed, their murders are a form of ritual, explicitly laden with all the figurative meanings we associate with the genre. Leslie Vernon observes that the final victim—the survivor girl—will always arm herself with a weapon resembling an erect cock. In an evocative apple orchard, Leslie conscientiously explains how the yonic (opposite of phallic) imagery symbolizes the womb and birth. These exegeses expose the inelegant subtexts of the slasher picture, but Leslie Vernon’s contagious excitement glorifies rather than mocks the genre.
All the meta is lovely, if a few notches short of a fantastic picture like Scream. But when Behind the Mask duly tries to be scary, it sacrifices all of its achievements. Taylor regains her sense of outrage, and Leslie dons his terrifying mask, abandoning his adorably bizarre persona to become the cheap attraction of countless interchangeable horror flicks. You can suffer through the second half of the film and the interminable credits, which loudly and irritatingly promise a surprise at the end, but what’s the point? Should this tiny little film ever take off, and a sequel come down the drainpipe, one only hopes that the filmmakers return to what made their project stand out in the first place.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is currently in limited release.