Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
By Desmond Reddick
19 February 2007 — Let me preface this by saying that I tend to get my hopes up when it comes to films I'm excited for. Yet they never live up to the self-induced hype, and sever only to disappoint. I'm not alone in this, I'm sure of it. Regardless, my anticipation for Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon began with a short blurb about its production in an issue of Rue Morgue in late 2005, and I made mention of it a few weeks back in Dark Prophecies and Bad Omens: Anticipating 2007. As fate would have it, a screener DVD fell into my lap, but I was somewhat hesitant to press play; I didn't want my hopes dashed... again. There was just no way Behind the Mask could live up to my high expectations, or so I thought.
This movie, the first new horror movie I've seen in 2007, will undoubtedly be amongst the best horror picture this year, and I wish I had finished the initial three parts of my Moronic / Iconic feature — where I bemoaned the bastardization of Jason Voorhees in the first part, and intend to give Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers the same treatment — before reviewing this, because title character Leslie Vernon stands to be the first true horror icon of the new millennium.
In a world where Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers exist, a guy has a lot to live up to. The product of a rape, Leslie Vernon was treated very poorly by his mother and stepfather: locked in a basement, the boy was only released to till the fields with a sickle. One awful night he murdered his tormentors and fled into the woods surrounding his farmhouse. When the townspeople caught him, he was thrown over a waterfall — to his supposed death. Of course, an urban legend surfaced amongst the teenagers of the town. According to lore, Leslie returns every year on his birthday to torment the residents of Glen Echo. Tonight... he does. Sound clichéd? Good! That's the entire point.
I jumped the gun a bit. The film actually begins with a documentary crew being invited into the home of slasher-to-be Leslie Vernon. Vernon, brilliantly portrayed by relative newcomer Nathan Baesel, is charming and difficult to take your eyes off of. The only real cliché this film lacks is the reveal of the killer. Of course, it would be an entirely different film without the prior knowledge given to you in the first hour. Leslie shows the film crew his vast library of textbooks, his pet turtles and his prowess for sleight of hand before inviting them into his workout routine ("You wouldn't believe the amount of cardio I have to do!"). It's both hysterical and fascinating how we are let behind the curtain ("mask" was too obvious) and drawn into the characters for the first hour. After we meet a mentor of Leslie's (a retired serial killer, of course), it began to dawn on me why I loved this movie: Leslie Vernon is the Batman of horror icons!
The satire in this movie is on a level far superior to other modern satirical fare such as the Scream series. It was self-referential without being pretentious, transparent without being obvious and funny without being dismissive and patronizing. The comedy puts it on a level with Shaun of the Dead in the way it knits itself into a serious circumstance. Instead of telling you the rules of the slasher film, it shows them to you intimately and gives you the reasoning behind it. It goes behind the scenes on how a slasher selects his "final girl" and the joy one feels when they find their "Ahab" (the technical term for the Dr. Loomis character). This very well could have been the greatest horror satire if it hadn't diverted into a serious film.
The switch to a serious slasher motif could have derailed the film completely, but the transition was not jarring. What makes the switch work is not only the fact that the last half hour is an intense, brilliantly constructed mini-slasher film in itself, it also allows you to watch the plan Leslie set in the first hour unfold. Vernon goes from charming to menacing at the drop of a hat, and only slightly reminded me of Christian Bale from American Psycho. The awareness you have after watching the first hour really informs the rest of the film. There is absolutely no doubt that co-writer / director / producer Scott Glosserman earned my respect with his knowledge of the genre and his filmmaking talent — especially for a debut film.
Though I was cynically waiting for it to fail me, for my hopes to be dashed, I felt like I was being treated while watching this movie. I almost tried to look for something not to enjoy, but maybe that is the result of watching too much shit. I couldn't find a thing. By the time the credits ended I smiled. I don't often do that. I felt like I do after eating a really good meal: satisfied, but wanting more.
In a time when we are devoid of such personalities, I demand that Leslie Vernon become the next great icon. Jigsaw does not have what it takes, nor does the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original or remake). As in any good slasher, Behind the Mask leaves room for a sequel. I would love to see many more of these films — but only so long as the wonderful Nathan Baesel returns to the role. Even if the whole "breaking the fourth wall" thing is done away with, I would watch at least one more slasher with Baesel in the role of the twisted and charming Vernon.