Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2005)
Directed by Scott Glosserman
Imagine yourself in a place where among the world's most infamous killers stand Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers... hell, even Charles Lee Ray. It's a world where there are people conceiving of incredible evil as casually as a person punching a time clock at work. They kill because it's their calling in life. This is the world of Leslie Vernon. Leslie is a young, funny, seemingly nice guy. Leslie is about to kill a whole mess of people.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the story of Leslie (played by relative newcomer Nathan Baesel), an up-and-coming supernatural killer who's decided to invite a camera crew to record the "birth" of his bloody legend. Reporter Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and her crew follow Leslie around while he explains his intentions, teaches them the terminology of "the business," and does his best to accommodate them. What you get is a film jam-packed with nods to our favorite horror films and a theater full of inappropriate laughter.
Leslie lays out his myth, showing the reporters his childhood home and the cursed lands surrounding it. Then he takes them through the house, explaining exactly what is to happen in every room and how he'll get the drop on trespassing, drunk, and horny teens with the help of some old fashioned pre-planning. In between, we sit down with Leslie as he attempts to enlighten the viewer on why he is what he is and does what he does. This all plays out like one part Scream, one part Man Bites Dog, and a heaping helping of Monty Python-esque delivery. As you watch, you can't help but think, "What if under that hockey mask, Jason Voorhees was just some guy in makeup who kills because it's what he loves to do?!" Behind the Mask gives you that dual vision.
When Leslie is with the reporters and pretty much talking to us, we laugh along with him and generally can't help liking the guy. As soon as he dons his mask, he becomes his character, the relentless, unfeeling killing machine with his eye only on destruction. Loss of human life is just part of the job. Shortly after, he returns, slipping out of his character as if he just played a prank on a good friend. There are three layers here. We see the world of the horror film where Leslie runs about creating terror and killing at will. We follow this with the camera crew on the second level, out of harm's way but still close enough to smell the blood. At any time people from the second level can cross into the first with their choices. If they break that unseen wall though, they face the other Leslie. On the third level is the movie viewer who is completely safe but forced to watch as an air of creeping dread washes over the film. As Leslie's acts escalate and things get sticky, the tone goes from dark humor to just plain DARK. We realize that Leslie may be a fun-loving guy, but his idea of fun leads to dismemberment. A question becomes thrust upon the reporters as well as the audience. Could you just stand there and watch?
Baesel plays Leslie Vernon as a man who knows why he was put on this earth. Nothing else matters past what he considers his calling. He's invited these people to get a look at the other side and record something the world has never seen, but make no mistake: If they get in his way, they risk becoming part of the legend. Nathan is completely believable as he laughs with child-like glee at the thought of cutting some teens to pieces and cries at the thought of his life's work coming to fruition. It's delivered with the playfulness of a young Jim Carey mixed with the intensity and conviction of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman with a little bit of Freddy Krueger thrown in. Alongside Leslie is Angela Goethals' portrayal of reporter Taylor Gentry. Angela practically plays straight man to Leslie's manic range of emotions. At times we see her warming to Leslie, only to stop as she reminds herself what this man is about to do to some fairly innocent kids. During the filming we hear chatter from cameramen Todd and Doug played by Britain Spelling and Ben Pace, who seem to completely forget what they are recording at times, bonding with their subject.
The secondary cast includes Kate Lang Johnson as Kelly, Leslie's target for terror, who screams, jumps, and freaks out like a good terrified horror movie heroine should. Film vet Scott Wilson (Last Samurai, Monster, and most recently Junebug) plays Eugene, Leslie's friend and mentor, having been a maniacal killer once upon a time himself. Eugene waxes nostalgic about the good ol' days of hunting and slashing and provides some equally hysterical and creepy moments, often referring to classic screen baddies by their first names as if they all meet at a bar in hell once a month to catch up and trade stories. Zelda Rubenstein (the little lady from Poltergeist) drops in for a cameo as the librarian, delivering a five-page monologue on the legend of Leslie Vernon in her still fantastic crackly, Southern-drawly voice. Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger himself) appears as Jack "Doc" Halloran, an almost mirror image homage to the late Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis in Halloween. This appearance actually blew me away as Robert transcends the characters we've seen before and becomes Doc Halloran, completely engaging you in what would normally be seen as a sort of "throwaway" part. He's damn intense! The rest of the cast is primarily the teens who run with the heroine Kelly, soon to be meat for the beast. These are your stereotypical horror movie kids who play up their two-dimensional roles with subtle, humorous results. We know they are there to get dead and the reporters know it too, but they are stuck in the movie so they haplessly go where the movie takes them... and where Leslie meticulously pushes them through fear and a swinging scythe. Also watch for a "blink and you'll miss it" cameo from Kane Hodder.
At no time while watching was I thinking Behind the Mask was a low budget, indie film. Director Scott Glosserman delivers stellar production quality as we shift from the shaky hand-held to chase Leslie around, into a single position for interviews, and into still another POV as Leslie takes us into the horror film he is unfolding. The director utilizes the theater's sound system to immerse you further, switching from the two front speakers in the reporter's viewpoint to surround sound as we dive into the horror film. Behind the Mask stands out as a spectacular thinking man's horror film, capable of playing to an art house crowd and diehard horror fans sitting side by side. On one hand you'll get to laugh at lines nodding to the ghosts of horror movies past and Leslie's general indifference with the blood to come. You'll flinch as Leslie begins his work, dicing up his targets with a methodical pace that would make Michael Myers beam with pride. There's no denying this is a very entertaining horror film. On the other hand is the underlying message. As the reporters struggle with the morality of rolling film while Leslie goes about his work, you can't help comparing it to the audience who lines up to watch horrific images every day around the world. Sure it's all fantasy, but I'm always surprised at some of the moments the crowd around me laughs at in a film. Sure, any horror fan will let out a laugh when Freddy takes out a teen with crackerjack comedic timing, but what of the people who chortled as a girl was raped at a recent showing of The Hills Have Eyes? Leslie Vernon may be a sick, sick man for doing what he does, but it would take a completely desensitized camera crew to continue to follow him and record it. Thankfully, the film doesn't hit you over the head with this message, but it's there in plain sight.
If Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon isn't picked up for big screen distribution, I'd consider it a crime. Here's hoping there is a way for you to see this film -- and soon. Those who have recently said a "horror comedy" won't sell have never met Leslie Vernon!
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