|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 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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information hit the film’s website at www.behindthemaskthemovie.com.
And stay through the end credits!
- Adam Barnick