Quantcast FIRST LOOK: BEHIND THE MASK - THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON review


FIRST LOOK: BEHIND THE MASK - THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (July. 06) by Adam Barnick

Behind the Mask takes place in a world where serial cinematic murderers Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Fred Krueger left real-life legacies and monstrous body counts. They are the Dahmers and Bundys of this “alternate now,” and a new legend is in the making, about to surface twenty years after his supposed childhood death at the hands of vengeful townsfolk.

Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), hopeful heir to the Grand Guignol throne, has invited a documentary crew of grad students to cover the beginning of his ‘career’, as well as observe his tricks of the trade and careful, meticulous planning that often appears to the average person (read; viewer) as effortless, efficient stalking and killing. You have no IDEA how much work goes into what seems like a silent, mindless rampage upon horny teens, and Mr. Vernon is going to show you what it takes, step by step.

Leslie articulates to television intern/aspiring interviewer Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) who makes the right victims and why, the proper way to plant the seeds of destruction and fear, how to pre-rig a murder scene so people fall in the order as expected, and the symbolism of weapons the final victim utilizes for defense.

Leslie covers it all, from planting fictitious newspaper backstories tying the lead victim’s past to his own, to the extensive cardio needed to keep up with sprinting would-be victims while doing the traditional slow lumber of movie killers we grew up on. We also visit a retired old-school slasher (an excellent Scott Wilson) who mentors Leslie and talks about the need for fear in society while comparing his ‘hit ‘em once and vanish’ philosophy to murder to the ‘returning every season’ ambition of current franchise killers (!)

Taken in by Leslie’s giddy schoolboy charm and burning intelligence, Taylor and the crew follow his every step while wrestling with the idea that Leslie is truly going to end lives at the end of this road... When their ethics finally kick in and they realize that he’s not all he’s led them to think, they find themselves in the movie scenario they feared, trying to stop his reign of carefully prepared terror. If they know all the moves on the chessboard, can they prevent them? Or has Leslie planned for this inevitability from the start?

Right off the bat we’re in smarter, deeper territory than Scream, and the filmmaking techniques compliment this. Whenever we’re with Taylor and her crew documenting Leslie, the film is shot on high quality/filmic DV, handheld but not irritating (though they do take a moment to cutely comment on Blair Witch’s shakycam..). The performances in the “behind the scenes” scenes are spot-on and feel largely improvised, or the result of a well-crafted script by director Scott Glosserman and David J. Stieve.

Whenever Leslie directly envisions what he is planning to do, or goes out and does it, the look changes to lush 35mm film, the sound fills out to stereo surround, familiar string music kicks in, and we’re dropped headfirst into a classic slasher; complete with minor time-honored clichés and heightened, melodramatic acting! When he finishes, we’re back behind-the scenes... but it flows steadily, and makes you feel this has to be the way to depict this story. It works as a depiction of Leslie’s heightened imagination and to give us a balance of traditional film narrative experience and an indie doc sensibility. Director Glosserman manages to craft what could come across as too much of a gimmick or a schizophrenic filmmaking premise and makes it work.

One of the accomplished results of the film is making you think the slasher, the most maligned subgenre in horror, itself often dismissed, deserves reconsideration, examination and study. Whether you agree will be up to you, but the clever screenplay makes its case. Why do victims react a certain way and head for certain terrains when confronted with a maniac? How can a human killer appear superhuman and survive fire and bullets, or appear dead when examined? Why can’t teens just climb out a first floor window to escape a killer? Why are the flashlights always dead? They’ve thought of everything, every genre ‘what if’ you can think of comes under the spotlight, yet all of this is depicted in a fashion that never dulls or bores the audience simply looking for fun. While it doesn’t take the simplistic approach that SCREAM did to pull apart genre tradition, it doesn’t come across as a dry academic lesson either. Instead of pulling apart classic horror film structure, the film deftly deconstructs slasher cliches’ and motives.

It also manages to comment subtextually on media complicity in violent events and how the cult of celebrity extends, unfortunately, to people whose claim to fame is eradicating human life. 90 percent of the time in these films, we’re rooting for the killer…and Leslie is so initially likeable, how could we not? Is that a good thing? When do we need to shift our focus to the victims? If you had a chance to follow Charles Manson around or pick his brain, would you? It’s all under the surface if you want to look for it; the film has a lot on its mind, but never drops its goal of entertainment.

Humor and horror are balanced quite well, coming out of the performances, and those performances are quite good. Special praise has to go to their choice of Baesel (ABC’s Invasion) in the title role. Expect to see Nathan in many more films after this film’s theatrical release. It’s a terrific performance; Leslie can go from geeky and persuasive to ice-cold menace in a moment and then still manage to regain our (and the camera crew’s) sympathies.

We spend much time with him early on, laughing out loud and entertained by his comments on everything to his turtles’ longevity to the “survivor girl”(industry term, you know) using his manhood to empower herself as tradition.. Baesel’s hilarious, five minutes into the film you will love him… letting your guard down... then he gets to the point where he implies he’s got no qualms stopping the crew for good if they get in his way. From his breathless excitement at finding his “Ahab” (a person representing all that is good who makes it his life’s mission to stop Leslie), to tearfully reflecting on all that’s happened in the hours before his life’s work comes to fruition, it’s rich and layered and you almost wish he could keep talking during the scenes when he has to slip into silent-killer mode. Angela as Taylor is a decent match for Leslie, she has to represent the audience’s feelings on this situation and keep our sympathies as well… Scott Wilson is great as the retired maniac, a rugged teddy-bear type who still wouldn’t have a problem snapping your neck if needed.

We don’t get to know the intended victims too well, but the situation they’re in keeps us attentive to their plight as they send up and honor some stereotypes…(innocent virgin, jock, stoners etc.) Genre mainstays Zelda Rubenstein (Poltergeist!), Robert Englund and Kane Hodder make welcome cameos, dispensing exposition and in Englund’s case, providing a nice 180 from the characters he usually plays (he channels Donald Pleasance as the “Ahab” trying to stop Leslie.) Unfortunately when the camera crew take center stage with Taylor and the teens, trying to stop Leslie’s game, it’s tough to sympathize immediately since they feel like “new characters,” having been behind the camera for the bulk of the story. But as previously mentioned the scenario keeps us hooked to watch to see who will survive, and what will be left of them.

Premiering at SXSW this past March and winning the Audience Award at GenArt, BTM has many more festival dates planned, and a theatrical release coming this October. It’s hilarious, smart, and manages to have an original take on time-honored material.

For more information hit the film’s website at
www.behindthemaskthemovie.com.

And stay through the end credits!


- Adam Barnick



Official trailer for BEHIND THE MASK:
THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON


Alternate Trailer

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