It's enough to make a horror fan weep. Just last year, it looked like our favorite fear fortunes were about to turn. There were so many good mainstream macabre films out in the mainstream marketplace that one hoped the genre was sustaining its original early decade renaissance. And 2007 started off promising as well, what with Robert Rodriguez's section of Grindhouse (Planet Terror) and Eli Roth's Hostel II making significant scary movie waves. But amid the miserable sequels and pointless prequels (we're looking at you, Hannibal Rising!) it looks like dread is now doing the backstroke, and somewhere along the way, it's bound to drown in its own creative cannibalizing. Luckily, those of us still enamored with the fright flick need look no further than the fantastic indie effort Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, to satisfy our need for salient shivers. Even better, this is a smart, witty satire that recognizes the inherent value of genre, and celebrates it in a significant cinematic way.
Grad student Taylor is being given the chance of a lifetime. Vernon Leslie, a soon to be serial killer, has invited her along on this latest myth-mandated murder spree, and he's ready to dish the deadly dirt. See, just like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, Leslie believes in the Carnage Code, a series of rules, regulations, principles and ethics that all monster movie bad men must follow. Closets are places of womb-like sanctuary. Sexually active teens are always the first to go. Never let the other members of your victim pool know there's death afoot until they're already trapped and doomed. And beware of your own personal Ahab. These well meaning do-gooders will stop at nothing to see your planned vivisections thwarted. As Taylor follows her subject around, we learn his backstory, the horrible events that lead up to his supposed demise, and the way in which he will gain his necessary slasher revenge. Along the way, we meet his 'survivor girl', discover that a crazed psychiatrist named Dr. Halloran is Leslie's Moby Dick inspired stalker, and learn that there is more to being the boogeyman than just a desire to slay. There is a great deal more to this soon-to-be psycho and it's up to Taylor to discover what lurks Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
Though it takes a couple of very minor tumbles along the way, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is one of the best, most original horror spoofs to come down the movie macabre pipeline in a very long time. Like a substantially sharper Scream, it wants to deconstruct the slice and dice genre staples while creating some terror benchmarks all its own. First time filmmaker Scott Glosserman should be proud of what he accomplishes here. The narrative is fresh, innovative, intelligent as Hell, and completely capable of delivering both scares and satire. Taking the slasher storyline as a literal lifestyle choice, and tossing in a solid murderer's mythology, he resurrects a long dormant fear factor and makes it sing with new cinematic significance. To call this a love letter to the archetypal fright flick crafted by a true fan (or in this case, fans, since David J. Stieve helped with the script) would be doing this movie a grand, over-generalized disservice. This is a clever compendium of every splatter riff we're used to, with a unique perspective which turns the entire serial killer premise on its pointed, provocative head. If initial impact is any indication of future success, Glosserman and Stieve will be macabre maestros for decades to come. What they manage here may have already sealed the deal.
Of course, there is the little matter of those aforementioned tiny missteps, the almost inconsequential reasons why, for all its smarts, Behind the Mask just misses being an instant classic. For one thing, Angela Goethals is not a very compelling lead. She's a fine actress, and does wonders with what is basically a thankless role, but she's not a typical horror heroine. Without spoiling the surprise, her importance to the narrative requires something a little weightier, and she's far too passive to pull that off - at least, initially. Toward the end, her performance picks up authority, but one wonders how much of it is inherent in the script and how much of it is Goethals herself. It really doesn't matter though. The rest of the cast is tremendous, perfectly mimicking the roles they would likely play in a stereotypical slasher film. Lead Nathan Baesel is especially good, bringing a nice comic twist to his far more friendly interpretation of the Freddy/Jason role. The next issue comes about halfway through the first act. We learn something about the title character that is supposed to change our perspective, viewing him differently in terms of his purpose and his power. It may be something of a stunt, a way of translating the terror directly back into the real world. But it's a hard shift to buy and it takes a few minutes for us to adjust. The final element is one that most splatter fans crave - and that's gore. Most of the killings occur off screen, with minimal arterial spray. It's hardly the kind of slaughter that will satisfy the average fan's rabid bloodlust.
Still, because it is carefully carved out of decades of genre chum, because it battles its subject head-on, meeting it cliché for cliché before turning the tables, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon minimizes its mistakes and becomes something of a horror movie epiphany. It may be too soon to call it a masterwork, but it does deserve such consideration. Aside from thwarting convention and attempting to reinvent two entire genres (dread and the mock documentary), this is the kind of movie that makes tried and true macabre mavens smile slyly to one another. It's not just the cameo appearances by Robert Englund (doing his best Dr. Loomis take) and Zelda Rubinstein (little Ms. Poltergeist herself), or the moment when the filmmakers take us to Crystal Lake, Elm Street and Haddenfield, Illinois to revisit some favorite old 'haunts'. Horror is a cinematic category that is frequently undermined by critics and scholars as gratuitous and artless. Anyone who treats it seriously deserves respect in return. But in this case, Behind the Mask takes it religiously - and if you're one of the converted, you'll adore the way it preaches. Definitely one of the best DVDs out this year, fright fans should rejoice. Something this special doesn't come around that often.
Though it argues for its low budget leanings all throughout the bonus material, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon looks exceptional on the digital format. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image fluctuates between purposefully amateurish (for the doc material being shot) and mainstream magnificent. The colors are luminous and properly balanced, while the contrasts are kept in carefully controlled check. About the only complaint one can offer is the switch, somewhere near the end, to a more Saw like cinematography. Directors of Photography need to learn that a crass combination of grey and green does not heighten horror. It just amplifies our aesthetic gag reflex.
Presented in either a moody Dolby Digital 5.1 multichannel experience or a far more mundane 2.0 Surround mix, the aural aspects of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon are quite remarkable. Since we don't see most of the killings, audio is the only way to experience the fear - and these tracks really turn out the terror. Indeed, they argue that fright filmmakers should always pay close attention to their sonic situations. They can make, and definitely break, a promising project.
Going all out to give this movie the meaning it so richly deserves, Anchor Bay has fleshed out the DVD package with a wealth of added content. We are treated to an audio commentary featuring actors Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Brian Spellings and Ben Pace, a Making of Behind the Mask EPK, a Casting of Behind the Mask featurette, a selection of deleted and extended scenes, and a few notable trailers. Also, if your computer is capable, you can access the original screenplay via the DVD-Rom element of the disc. All of this extra material is excellent, from the cast discussion which highlights their horror favorites and individual anecdotes, to the Behind the Scenes sneak peek, where we get to see Glosserman interact with Englund and Rubinstein. What makes these backstage glimpses so unique is that we don't feel we are watching some independent fanboy production. Instead, everyone seems earnest and invested in what Behind the Mask is trying to do. It makes for a richer sense of the shooting strategies, and a far more favorable impression of the final film.
Come December, when a year's worth of DVD viewing is reduced down to a single set of ten titles, one thing is definitely for certain - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon will be among said 'Best of' number. It is hard to imagine a better example of post-modern motion picture reimagining than this laugh out loud lark. But this is the kind of film that has us smiling with it, both in recognition of its subject and its own outright cleverness. While some might think it deserves the highest rating possible, this critic is going to knock off a couple of compliments, and merely award it a Highly Recommended. It's not because Behind the Mask is imperfect. No, it gets so many other things so completely right that the flaws are merely irritating, not irreversible. Decades from now, when fans discuss their favorite flicks, this will be a name bandied about quite a bit. It's just that kind of creative cornerstone.
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