Sunday, September 25, 2011

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Ever notice when you're watching a slasher movie, the same elements reappear? The windows won't open, the cars won't start, and the bodies of the heroine's dead friends pop out in extremely convenient locations to scare her. Can anyone picture Jason Voorhies or Michael Myers rigging little touches like? Why go to all the trouble if they just want to kill everyone? Well, apparently, they have more in mind.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) shows us the method to their madness. What we've longed believed were contrived formulas was actually elaborate, carefully plotted plans. The killers spend weeks, even months following their intended targets, cataloging every behavior, so when the night of horror arrives, they foresee every possible action and plan everything accordingly. Those of you who consider Jason a mindless brute are mistaken.

Presented as a fake documentary shot by grad students, Behind the Mask introduces us to Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a young man who looks at Freddy, Jason, and Mike not as psychos but idols. He wants his name to be just as infamous and feared. To gain notoriety, he invites Taylor (Angela Goethals) and her cameramen Doug (Ben Pace) and Todd (Britain Spellings) to observe his preparations and reveal the history and role of slashers in the world.

Behind the Mask has a lot of fun with the conventions of the slasher genre. Leslie explains his plans less like a demented psychopath and more like a charming prankster putting together a haunted house for Halloween. He's seen nailing windows shut, rigging axes and other tools to break after one use, and elaborating on the Freudian subtext inherent in these plots. We meet his mentor Eugene (Scott Wilson), an old pro to the slasher game who talks about Jason, Mike, and Freddy like they were drinking buddies. Leslie even makes friends with the camera crew; they always have this unstated belief this is all a lark. He can't be serious about killing these teenagers, right?

There are a few hints of the darkness beneath the surface. Leslie gets angry and physical when the crew tries to speak with his intended target, and they're warned by Leslie's "Ahab," Doc Halloran (Robert Englund made to look Dr. Loomis from Halloween) that Leslie is not who he says he is.

About an hour into the movie, the subjective viewpoint is dropped when Taylor decides they can't stand by and let the slaughter occur. Behind the Mask becomes a rather effective horror piece in its own right. Leslie, no longer the joking showman we've seen for an hour, has flipped a switch and is an emotionless, silent killer. We've been prepped by Leslie about how exactly his night will unfold and are expecting it to play out like a laundry list of genre cliches. Instead, the film subverts our expectations by having them occur differently than we expected them.

Behind the Mask works as a satire of the slasher genre as well as a superior modern example of the form. It toys with the archetypes and finds news to exploit them. Horror fans, whether fans of slashers or not, will find much to enjoy.

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