Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Director: Scott Glosserman
Writer: David J. Stieve, Scott Glosserman
Producer: Scott Glosserman
Stars: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Bridgett Newton, Kate Lang Johnson, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Robert Englund
A documentary film crew profiles an aspiring serial killer as he prepares to take his revenge against the town that killed him.
Even with more than ten years having passed since its initial release, “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” remains relevant, sharp, and the smartest satire of slasher films we’ll ever see. Why? Because it doesn’t date itself with dopey pop culture references or simply spoof tropes for one-off winks. Each sendup of horror movie convention is inventively integrated into a creative frame, which simultaneously makes the movie an excellent entry in the very subgenre it so cleverly subverts.
Twenty years ago, farmboy Leslie Vernon took a hand scythe to his father and a noose to his mother. The idyllic small town of Echo Glen, Maryland in turn took up pitchforks and torches, tossing the tortured young terror over Ellis Falls, where he drowned in the water below.
Never mind how he came back. Leslie has had two decades to plot his revenge, training mentally and physically like an insanely inverse Batman. During these final days of preparation, a documentary film crew is there every step of the way as Leslie stalks the virginal teenager who will be his final foil, seeks advice from an Obi-Wan Kenobi who had it far easier in the slashing 70s, and personally rigs every cliché to pop out on cue when a high school crew parties in his abandoned house on the anniversary of Leslie’s death.
An arm with a monkeywrench might be cocking to throw, however. Grad school student Taylor’s feet start chilling the deeper she delves into Leslie’s scheme. She and her two cameramen might not have the guts to see their journalism project through to completion. And if they don’t, Leslie might have to alter his plan by adding three more names to his kill list.
“Behind the Mask” is like “Toy Story” for cinematic serial killers, pulling back the curtain on an unlikely lighter side of what fictional masked murderers do in the moments when no one is looking. In between carefully arranging corpses or impossibly pacing sprinting victims while walking, Leslie shows us the effort that goes into doctoring newspaper clippings essential for exposition and keeping his arch-nemesis at arm’s length.
It’s almost a visual “Anarchist’s Cookbook” for how a Voorhees, Myers, or Krueger goes from average mass murderer to mythical urban legend. And it is awesomely entertaining.
From naming the killer Leslie to using The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” over end credits, every single stroke is an inspired detail. The film finds its funniness by simply putting laughs onscreen and letting the audience take what they choose.
When three girls in First Communion garb jump rope as a throwaway homage, they do so in the background. Actors don’t resort to rubberface expressions. Goofy music cues don’t point out any jokes. “Behind the Mask” never needs to exaggerate with “look at me!” theatrics because no one needs a laugh track to identify the humor.
Helping the script’s hilarity come across effortlessly is A+ acting. Play Leslie Vernon in any manner other than affable Everyman and “Behind the Mask” would step with a far different stride. Nathan Baesel’s combination of Daniel Tosh delivery with Chris Pratt charm steers Leslie away from cartoonish caricature to create a memorable murderer who is both homey and homicidal.
Supporting players stay on the same page. There’s a preciseness in dialogue deliveries, whether it is Scott Wilson wistfully recalling the good old days of sorority row slaughter or one of the cameramen inflecting two words just right, keeping tone consistent so the movie’s horror stays humorous yet the comedy is never campy.
It’s a challenge to find noteworthy fault with the film, be it in concept or staging. Stale jokes that don’t land? Not really. Too goofy of a mask for Leslie? Maybe. Use of the term ‘Survivor Girl’ instead of the more commonly accepted ‘Final Girl?’ I guess.
When we really get down in the dirt of it, everything essential about “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” absolutely works. It’s a lighting-in-a-bottle lampoon we probably won’t see the likes of again. Good thing then that as pastiche and as a fun slasher film in its own right, “Behind the Mask” holds up no matter what era it is.
Review Score: 95