The year is 2014 and meta-horror isn’t anything new. If Scream ushered in mainstream generic awareness in 1996, the nearly twenty years since has found horror conventions solidified in the psyche of modern filmgoers. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon arrives a full decade after Scream, adding a substantial layer to the horror commentary cake.
Scream’s tongue-in-cheek approach pulled back the curtain, revealing that horror movies aren’t as rote as they seem – instead of signifying a lack of creativity, tropes act as comfort food. Like any generic convention, they provide a loose framework that is often more freeing than constrictive.
Behind the Mask takes it a step further, exploring the tantalizing ability of horror films to seduce us into complacency and perhaps culpability. It’s this audience complacency and willingness that has made horror films so successful. Cabin in the Woods, yet another meta-horror film, explores the idea that film directors are at the mercy of a sadistic, hungry, omnipotent audience that grants life with the mighty dollar. If the audience is the God that gives life, it’s best to give them what they want.
While Behind the Mask succeeded in tickling my own fancy, it wasn’t able to attract a mainstream audience and its creators have all but disappeared in the flood of new, up-and-coming horror writers and directors. This is more the fault of the film’s budget and distribution than its quality. It’s odd, quirky, often hilarious, and definitely worth your time.
Behind the Mask is like Frankenstein’s Monster, composed of bits and pieces from earlier films. Its approach to horror movies is reminiscent of Scream, but it’s format echoes 1992’s Man Bites Dog. Up until a crucial shift later in the film, we move through the film as part of a documentary film crew, following the titular Leslie Vernon as he prepares to slaughter a group of college kids.
Sound strange? I guess it is. But Leslie Vernon isn’t without a grounded motivation, and certainly not without ambition. We’re quickly informed by Taylor, the precocious collegiate reporter spearheading the project, that this is a world where the iconic horror killers exist, and to public knowledge. We tour Elm Street, Camp Silver Lake, and walk the street from Halloween, watching as children sit at their windows, still too scared to leave the safety of their home.
While most of the world lives in fear of these men, Leslie Vernon strives to emulate them. Selling this character and this premise was the biggest challenge facing director Scott Glosserman, but he struck gold by casting Nathan Baesel as Leslie. Baesel is remarkably charismatic, similar to Ben from Man Bites Dog but not nearly as nihilistic. He provides a hypnotizing presence that manages to invite and repulse at the same time, continuing the breath-like give and take of the film. His childlike glee is easy to sympathize with, even as he’s plotting an unspeakable act.
The fact that Baesel hasn’t exploded into other films provides a constant reminder that Hollywood isn’t always fair. He carried this film with ease and I’m sure he would do the same elsewhere. The only silver lining to Baesel’s continued obscurity is that it adds to the mythos of Leslie Vernon. There’s no appearance in a romantic comedy to shatter the illusion. For me, he is and has continued to exist only as Leslie Vernon.
And what a character he is. He takes his job seriously, face perpetually alight with a smile and a story. He’s the kind of man who would help an old lady cross the street, groceries in hand, and do it out of complete sincerity. Then, he’d probably sneak into the house and murder her that very night. Aside from the Horror Greats, he idolizes David Copperfield and Houdini, men who pioneered the “tricks of the trade.” Only in Leslie’s case the trade is mass murder, not simple sleight of hand. At one point in the film, Leslie jokes about how killers are expected to run at full speed while appearing to walk casually. After a day of exercise, he confesses, “You have no idea how much cardio I have to do. It’s ridiculous!” Even here the smile remains plastered to his face.
As Leslie works towards his planned date for the killings, the movie becomes an intimate portrait of this man. The fact that he’s so nonchalant about the endgame makes it easy to overlook the dirty details. This documentary aesthetic quickly transforms the film into a weird episode of Dirty Jobs where the process is front and center. This simplicity starts to work on the reporters pretty fast – their original angle was to ensnare Vernon, but they slowly become sucked into his poisonous web.
Behind the Mask is written by director Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to give a “Story By” credit to the film theoretician Carol Clover, author of one of my favorite collections of film criticism, Men, Women, and Chainsaws. In her book, Clover analyzes several horror tropes in the context of gender. For her, the “Final Girl” in horror movies has to remove and assume the killer’s manhood to be victorious. This is why she has to be a virgin; in a way, the encounter with the killer is her first sexual experience. This particular point, as well as many more ideas from Clover’s writings, is explored in the talking head interviews between Taylor and Leslie.
This film theory actually plays into the plot of the film, but it would be a huge disservice to explain it further. In the end, all of Clover’s rules and regulations come to pass, with characters wrestling their own consciences in a real, harrowing way. At one point, Taylor declares, “It’s over. The documentary is done,” which means the real story is just beginning. It’s a technical and narrative shift that elevates the film from a simple commentary on Clover’s ideas to something truly worthwhile. Thankfully, these theoretical approaches don’t weigh the film down in any way. These heady inserts are surprisingly insightful, creating a movie that both teaches and entertains. If you’re intrigued, it’s worth checking out Clover’s writing, which is available HERE.
Behind the Mask is similar to other meta-horror films like Cabin in the Woods in that it’s not necessarily a SCARY movie, even though it earns its label as a HORROR movie. Behind the Mask is interested in exploring the genre more than scaring you silly, but it’s not without thrills. It’s always fun and occasionally gory, despite its budgetary constraints. There’s no iconic elevator scene a’ la Cabin, but there is a memorable bit with a posthole digger.
This film has so much going for it, from a fun performance by Robert Englund to cameos from Scott Wilson and Zelda Rubinstein. The team is currently at work on the sequel (prequel?), but that’s still far off in the distance.
In the meantime, at least we have this entry into the Leslie Vernon franchise, a franchise that deserves some more love. The film raises and explores interesting questions about horror films in general, while still becoming a memorable entry into the genre. It’s a great commentary, a surprisingly educational experience, and just damn good fun.