An ingenious modern take on the slasher genre, "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" is a satiric version of "The Blair Witch Project
," a mockumentary on the order of Christopher Guest (2003's "A Mighty Wind
"), and an old-school late-'70s/early '80s mad slasher flick all rolled into one. One of those rare indie horror efforts that deserves to see a wide theatrical release with a major distributor (Lionsgate could do wonders with it), the film marks an auspicious debut for writer-director Scott Glosserman.
Along with co-screenwriter David J. Stieve, Glosserman has reimagined a world in which Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and the rest of the top cinematic killers of horny teens have resided. Hoping to follow in their bloody paths and make an infamous name for himself is Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), who has agreed to be the centerpiece of a documentary being made by aspiring grad school film major Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals). Following brief trips to Camp Crystal Lake, Springwood and Haddonfield for a little background on the serial killers of the past, Taylor narrows her gaze on Leslie.
Something of a myth in the sleepy Maryland town of Glen Echo—he is thought to have been killed by local residents years ago—Leslie is in the middle of serious preparations for his planned reign of teen slaughter. As she follows his day-to-day actions—lots of cardio training to get himself into shape, and the stalking of virginal 17-year-old high schooler Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson), who he has labelled "Survivor Girl"—Taylor has no idea what she has gotten herself into until Leslie's systematic plans of murder become all too real. Will Taylor be able to stand by and let Leslie pick off the clan of teen victims one at a time, or does she have it in her to try and stop him?
"Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" works on several different levels, sometimes all at once. For a long time, the film is a very funny comedy (not on the broad order of a "Scary Movie
" entry, but as a sly comment on the tried and true conventions of the classic slasher blueprint). Somewhere toward the middle of the second act, Leslie—who until now has portrayed himself as an affable, well-mannered fellow—snaps at Taylor and shoves her against the side of her production van. She has begun to get in his way and pass judgments where they aren't wanted, and in that crucial moment the viewer sees a more dangeous and demented side of Leslie's psyche that accurately sets up the dark-toned climax. The film isn't as frightening as it could have been—the chosen teen victims are never more than one-dimensional walking clichés even when things turn serious; the violence and viscera are a little too reserved to reach the level of inspiration that surrounds them; and the jokiness in the first half marginally lessens the scare potential of the third act—but the picture remains an enthralling experience that refuses to shortchange its own imagination.
More than anything, "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" will be a treat for anyone who reads Fangoria
or has seen their fair share of "Dead Teenager" movies. Giddy in its use of self-referencing (think of the "Scream
" series, but skewered an extra notch), the number of throwbacks to movies of old are, indeed, so plentiful and encompassing that it would take many viewings to catch them all. On first glance, some of the most clever homages
include the returns to the fictional settings of Springwood and Haddonfield (filmed at the actual houses used in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Halloween
"), a brief appearance of the jump-roping children from "A Nightmare on Elm Street," a classical song cue from "The Shining
," and the best use of a barn in a horror film since "Friday the 13th Part 3-D." There is also a Captain Ahab character (much reminiscent of the late Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis) in the form of Doc Halloran (Robert Englund), Leslie's determined arch-nemesis, and a hilarious cameo from "Poltergeist" veteran Zelda Rubinstein as a helpful librarian with a penchant for over-detailing expository information. Rubinstein gets the biggest laughs with her pricelessly overzealous line deliveries of some purposefully exaggerated dialogue.
Save for an always-welcome Robert Englund (2003's "Freddy vs. Jason
"), this time playing quirky good guy Doc Halloran, and Scott Wilson (2005's "Junebug
"), as Leslie's offbeat mentor Eugene, the picture belongs to the outstanding work of Angela Goethals (2004's "Spanglish
") and Nathan Baesel (TV's "Invasion"). While the rest of the supporting players commit to their roles and do a nice job, they are fairly peripheral to the main storyline. Goethals, an underutilized actress who has been around for years (she played one of Macaulay Culkin's sisters in 1990's "Home Alone") but not gotten the recognition she deserves, is naturalistic, always convincing, and ultimately sympathetic as documentary maker Taylor Gentry, who slowly comes to realize how in over her head she has gotten. Goethals is also an ace at reactionary facial expressions that sell the unlikely premise of an even-keeled filmmaker following a psychopath around as he prepares for his killing spree. In his first feature film lead, Baesel is superbly funny—and then creepy—as Leslie Vernon, having a blast as he puts a spin on what Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers might be like during their off-time. When it's time to get down to business, however, Leslie isn't fooling around, and it's a testament to Baesel that he is able to plausibly make that haunting switch between seeming harmless and threatening.
In bringing "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" to the screen, director Scott Glosserman delights in juggling different tones, both light and dramatic, as well as his audience's expectations. It isn't that Glosserman surprises in his plot developments—most of them are admittedly predictable—but that he uses those very archaic slasher film conventions in a way that wryly comments on their silliness while simultaneously revitalizing the formula because of them. Special kudos also for the inclusion of The Talking Heads' atmospheric song "Psycho Killer" during the brilliantly realized end-credits sequence. Big fun that mixes well its comic aspirations with gritty, down-and-dirty suspense, "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" doesn't just document the title madman's trek toward gruesome infamy, but also the introduction of an original and invigorating new filmmaking talent in Scott Glosserman. With the right distribution deal, the easy success of this crafty entertainment could position him as the next Eli Roth or Alexandre Aja.