Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

The Spoony One | Feb 19 2009 | 

The following is a re-post of an old review I’d written, which was lost when we changed to the new site format:

It’s not easy being a teen slasher; it requires tons of cardio work and upper-body training if you want to be able to keep up with fleeing victims or rip out a jock’s heart with a post-digger. Leslie Vernon, aspiring psychopath, invites a crew of grad school filmmakers to film a documentary about his daily routine and his carefully-planned act of systematically stalking a “survivor girl” (who must be a virgin) and murdering all of her stoner friends. Behind the Mask is, as you would expect, a satire of the slasher genre shot as a mockumentary. It’s a quirky indy gem that is far better than it ought to be because of the surprising strength of its actors, dozens of blink-and-you-miss-them homages to classic horror films, and its thoughtful post-modern deconstruction of almost every slasher cliché imaginable.

It’s got a lot of problems, though. Director Scott Glosserman shows a great deal of talent and flair for comedy, but the script doesn’t translate well to the screen. A lot more pre-production work in storyboarding might have solved these issues. Because of its documentary style, it’s filmed almost exclusively from the viewpoints of the two cameramen on handheld. Glosserman bemoans this restriction several times in the audio commentary, as it cripples his ability to play around with perspective as many horror films like to do. In fact, he abandons the documentary style whenever Leslie is about his grisly business, because there’s just no way to maintain it when you’re trying to emulate slasher movies as well. It’s not awfully done, but it ‘s generally bad form to shift viewpoints from an objective third-party to an omniscient perspective and back again.

It’s a movie that demands a lot of suspension of disbelief, even for an obvious satire. Leslie Vernon desperately wants to be like the monstrous killers Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers, who, in the warped reality of this movie, actually existed and serve as historical role models. This works against the movie, surprisingly, since most of the slasher movie tropes Leslie explains to Taylor are cinematic clichés you would only notice on a movie screen. If Jason Voorhees and Michael are real, how could anyone possibly know about the infamous slasher “walk-run,” where Leslie forces himself to practice speed-walking, but then secretly running when his victims aren’t looking, then walking again when they turn around so that it always looks like he’s still walking. How else can he have the flight-patterns of his victims so well-charted if he hadn’t seen a horror flick? He even has terms like “having an Ahab,” a hero character who will stop at nothing to put an end to Leslie– like Dr. Loomis to Michael Myers, here played by Robert Englund.

I know it’s all a joke, but a lot of this movie would have played much better if the script acknowledged the existence of the movies instead of oddly choosing to make all of those iconic killers “real.” That way, much of Leslie’s behavior makes more sense. He would come off as more of a movie buff, because he already spends much of the movie framing perfect shots and pacing his upcoming slaughter so that the deaths are neatly spaced-out and artistically-done to heighten the dramatic effect. It would also do a great deal to explain why filmmaker Taylor isn’t far more horrified that Leslie openly boasts at being a serial killer and plans to murder upwards of ten people in one night. In a world where dozens of slashers like Jason Voorhees and Leatherface have gone on innumerable rampages, it’s hard to believe that Taylor wouldn’t take Leslie very seriously.

Of course, Leslie is dead serious, and at some point Taylor has to ask herself whether or not she can stand idly by and let this continue– pointing out yet another flaw: why would Taylor participate in such a project if there was any indication at all that it might not be a joke? Actually, the director says in a commentary that the film originally ends with Taylor going on trial as an accessory to murder. It’s another indication that the documentary concept just isn’t thought-out enough, and the script probably could have used some revisions to hammer out some of the larger gaps in logic like that. It’s just hard to figure out how Taylor believes that Leslie is serious about his proposed massacre, thinks this would be a good student film project, and yet is dreadfully unprepared when it turns out that hanging out with Leslie is like playing with napalm.

It’s a cute movie. Maybe a little too cute. I had fun with it, though. Think of it as the spiritual successor to Scream’s “rules to survive a horror movie” gimmick, to which Behind the Mask suggests “run like a motherfucker, and don’t stop ’til daybreak.” It’s definitely worth a rental, but I don’t think Glosserman can really be happy with the final product. There was a ton of potential here if only they’d managed to hit that vital third-act out of the park. It’s a charming diversion that could have been a cult classic with a little tweeking.