THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (2007)
Director: Scott Glosserman
Regular readers of my reviews have probably realized that I really like horror movies. And while I enjoy pretty much all types of them, I have a certain affection for the various slasher movies that populated the genre during the '80s. And although there was a slight renaissance after the release of Scream in 1996, slasher movies have effectively become a dying breed. Besides the remakes of old classics like Halloween and Friday the 13th, slasher movies are few and far between, but that's not to say that nobody makes them anymore. When one does see release, the online horror community lights up with anticipation. Such was the case with Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a little flick that could be classified as the horror genre's equivalent of This Is Spinal Tap. Behind the Mask was released in a mere seventy-two theaters, but you wouldn't know the release was so limited from the buzz it generated amongst websites specializing in horror movie news. Admittedly, the hype was nowhere near the amount garnered by that overrated mess known as Hatchet, but the anticipation was still there. The movie has heralded by a handful of Internet critics as something of a modern cult classic, but is Behind the Mask deserving of all the praise it received across the Internet? Yes, very yes.
Imagine, if you will, a world in which horror movie villains like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger not only exist, but are the most prolific serial killers on the face of the planet. In this world, even psychos like them will inspire people to follow in their footsteps. One such follower is Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a wannabe killer who lives on the outskirts of Glen Echo, Maryland. Taking his name from a local urban legend about a killer who fell victim to vigilante justice, Leslie has allowed filmmaker Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and her crew to follow him as he prepares to enter what he calls the "business of fear."
As the movie progresses, Leslie brings the crew along for the ride. He relays the tricks of the trade, such as the intense training regimen he's developed to help him effortlessly chase victims on the run. He gives the crew a tour around his supposed childhood home, an abandoned farmhouse that he's booby-trapped for maximum murdering potential. He introduces them to Eugene (Scott Wilson), a retired killer who Leslie regularly turns to for advice. He has them accompany him while stalking a young woman named Kelly (Kate Long Johnson), whom Leslie has picked to be his "survivor girl." Taylor and her crew are even privy to Leslie's first tangle with Dr. Halloran (Robert Engund), an incident that Leslie celebrates as the revealing of his "Ahab," the bastion of good that is unrelenting in his quest to end Leslie's rampage. But when the massacre finally gets underway, Taylor and her crew decide they can no longer sit and watch, and must intervene before a group of innocent teenagers are slaughtered.
The thing about horror/comedies is that most of them don't really work. Either they can't find a proper balance between the elements that comprise them, or the straightforward factor that they just plain suck. That isn't the case with Behind the Mask. It's one of those rare blends of horror and humor than actually results in a good movie. What makes it work is that it's both an amusing satire of genre conventions, and an effective slasher film in its own right. Behind the Mask, unlike many other recent parodies and satires, shows affection for the movies that inspired it. It doesn't wish to mock the movies it makes reference to, but instead pay its respect by giving funny explanations for many of the genre's most enduring clichés. And as the movie transitions from satire to straightforward slasher movie, it maintains the humor while working in some well-done scares and suspense.
Director Scott Glosserman does a fine job in this, his feature film debut. The documentary-style approach is a novel idea, one that makes for a very entertaining, unique movie. It takes things to a more intimate level, making the viewer part of the action. When the movie actually adopts a more traditional filmmaking style during the final half-hour of the movie, that intimacy remains with fantastic camera work by cinematographer Jaron Presant. His shots are tight and combined with brisk editing, thus helping to create a tense atmosphere that betters the movie. I also applaud the music composed by Gordy Haab. Music in movies should be used to enhance the visuals they're backing, and Haab's music does exactly that. And whoever had the idea to play "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads over the closing credits is an absolute genius. That was a brilliant touch, if I do say so myself.
The screenplay, written by Glosserman and David Stieve, is also quite good. It boasts a sharp wit that makes even the goofiest "wink wink, nudge nudge" gags work. It's a neat concept, a mockumentary offering playful explanations for nearly every slasher movie convention you could think of. The script also toys with these conventions, using them in ways that are familiar yet unexpected. And though the twist near the end may be somewhat predictable, the viewer is so wrapped up in the movie by that point that it isn't really that big of a deal. It also helps that the script features snappy, intelligent, and humorous dialogue, something you don't really see in slasher movies that aren't named "Scream."
Last but not least is the cast, all of whom are great. But truth be told, with the exception of the two leads and two supporting actors, the rest of the cast gets precious little screen time. It doesn't really matter, since those four are enough to carry the movie. But let's go with the smaller roles first. Up first is Robert Englund, who channels the spirit of Donald Pleasence in a likeable performance. I also thought Zelda Rubenstein of Poltergeist fame did a fine job in her cameo as an exposition-spouting librarian. Kate Long Johnson is humorous, as are Ben Pace and Britain Spellings, who play the documentary's cameramen. But we can't forget those other four actors. The two primary supporting actors, Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton, are incredibly entertaining as Leslie's mentor and his wife. Wilson is amiable yet creepy in the role, while Newton's enthusiastic performance is a pleasure.
The real standouts of the cast, however, are the leads, Nathan Baesel and Angela Goethals. During the documentary portion of the movie, Goethals delivers her dialogue in a stilted, pretentious fashion. It's as if she were imitating every similarly pompous film school documentarian. But once things start going crazy, Goethals changes into a tough, able heroine. Her effective performance is two sides of the same coin, which is the exact same thing I can say about Baesel. His performance is nothing short of awesome. Playing Leslie Vernon as what would happen if Jim Carrey became a serial killer, he's charming, likeable, and funny. But just as Goethals's character goes through a transformation, so does Baesel's. Once he puts on his mask and slips into full killer mode, he becomes scary and intimidating. The layered performance really allows Baesel to steal the entire movie. If you need one reason at all to see Behind the Mask, it's Nathan Baesel.
The year 1992 saw the release of Man Bites Dog, a Belgian mockumentary about a film crew following a serial killer. But while that movie was mostly serious, Behind the Mask is a more light-hearted affair. Sure, it's still a horror movie, but it's one that will put a smile on your face. With a talented cast and an obvious love for the genre, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a movie that's definitely worth your time. So I'll gladly give it four stars on the patent-pending Sutton Scale. As a fan of slasher movies, I definitely approve.
Final Rating: ****