Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernnon

Even before the Scream franchise came along, the “slasher” sub-genre of horror had been wallowing in the pit of self-parody for quite some time. The Friday the 13th films had become toned-down camp and A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s headliner Freddy Krueger had made the (admittedly small) leap from figure of menace to sweater-clad punchline. In lieu of innovation (unless you count Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), the once mighty slashers had begun pointing out their own genre tropes and dispatching their victims with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

This trend of self-awareness is always something that bugged and saddened me. Can’t a movie about a big lad in a hockey mask chopping up teenagers be sincere anymore? But to my astonishment, this trend has produced a movie that mixes canny self-awareness with legitimate quality and insight, basically making it the Shaun of the Dead of Slasher films. Granted it took me five years to hear about the thing, but this is the film industry we’re talking about, if you want an intelligent genre film you have to look hard for the sucker.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is part old-school slasher romp and part hand-cam mockumentary in which a team of journalists follow a young hopeful looking to be the next big thing on the slasher circuit. Yep, you read that right. The crew follows wannabe slasher Leslie Vernon as he makes his preparations for the “big night”, selects his victims and does tons and tons of cardio. Makes sense to me, keeping up with scared teenagers while making it look like you’re just casually walking along probably takes a lot of training.

Along the way Vernon does his fair share of monologue-ing on the methodology and tactics slashers have been using for decades, and this is where the film goes beyond simple self-awareness and into the next vital step: deconstruction. Vernon doesn’t just point out the obvious stuff like “the virgin lives” or “the closet is the safest place” like those are clever insights. Any monkey who ever watched a few slasher flicks knows that stuff.

No, he gets into the real heart of the thing and talks about what it all means. The prevalence of phallic and yonic imagery, the psychological journey of the survivor and most importantly, what is it that makes an ordinary guy choose to put on a mask and start stabbing people, even if he doesn’t have some tragic or twisted back story.

Rather than trying to pass off awareness of the most basic tropes of the genre as some kind of cleverness, this is a film that is actually trying to lend some insight into those tropes. This alone places it head and shoulders above the Scream series (have I been too subtle in my dislike for those films?) and easily the best slasher film in recent years. But it doesn’t even end there!

Acting wise, we get a cast of almost complete unknowns, but they all pull it off admirably. Obviously Nathan Baesel gets the lion’s share of the credit for his portrayal of the title character. He can go from disarmingly normal and slightly effeminate to eerily intense in a heartbeat. When he’s doing that oh-so-important monologue-ing, you really can sense his passion and conviction for what he’s doing, and later on see hints of the underlying psychosis which is obviously a prerequisite in his line of work.

Angela Goethals also does a terrific job as the plucky reporter lady trying to immerse herself in Vernon’s world and mind without losing track of her own morality or sanity, and when the cameras are off and she’s given more time on screen, she really shines.

Slasher vet and former Freddy Krueger Robert Englund also has a cheeky cameo as the “Dr. Loomis” of the film (Slasher fans will know what I mean) and while I was hoping this was his chance to prove he can act without five pounds of makeup and prosthetics on his face, he sadly isn’t given enough screen time to really do much with his role.

Rounding things out is Scott Wilson as Vernon’s mentor figure, and his performance is just nuanced enough not to steal the spotlight.

As previously mentioned, this is a hybrid of hand-cam style and traditional film making. For the majority of the film, it’s straight-up hand-cam style, but at the end, the camera turns off and we switch to traditional film style. Normally I’d deride this as cheap and lazy, but it actually works here, as it is at this precise moment that sh!t gets real, to paraphrase Martin Lawrence.

Suddenly we aren’t seeing things through a lense, metaphorically or literally. This is the point at which we see what’s really been going on this whole time, and how what was previously a joke is now deadly serious. This is hardly coincidental and speaks leagues about the skill of the people working on this thing.

If you’re a fan of old-school slasher goodness, you’ll probably love this. I actually hadn’t been a huge horror fan for a while, but after watching this I actually went back and watched most of the old Friday the 13th movies, and have been watching more horror in general since, so I have good ole Leslie to thank for reintroducing me to an old friend.

The movie is on DVD now, and the sequel is currently in production and being crowd-funded. Go have a look!

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