Film Reviews

Mockumentary & Slasher Combine in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is modern slashers. 

Writer-Director Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a movie that starts out clever. Then it doubles down and becomes brilliant. Then, well, it executives a twist you figure out at least 10 minutes before the characters do, and there’s a sense that a potential all-time classic flinched at the last second. But, it’s still a must-watch for horror fans.

The clever part stems from setting a modern slasher movie in a world in which Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger actually exist. In Behind the Mask, these icons of fright aren’t fictional characters to be joked about in Scream movies or re-watched via AMC marathons. Instead, they are the world’s most legendary serial killers and they have inspired a wave of imitators.

Leslie and his Bryan Singer vibes

The titular Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), whose disarming good looks and charisma hide his sociopathy, is one such hopeful. He’s invited a camera crew to document every stop of his process as he builds up to executing his first ritualistic massacre, explaining both the what and why of his turn toward slasher villainy. This plays a bit like those old Fox Breaking the Magician’s Code specials. As Leslie reveals just how many of a slasher’s tricks come down to MacGyvering some fishing wire, we’re supposed to feel like we’re glimpsing trade secrets. This results in plenty of laughs but truly getting to know Leslie proves more elusive.

This clearly frustrates the documentary director Terry (Angela Goethals). Initially assuming Leslie to be a bit of a crank (for one, he claims to be a vengeful spirit), her efforts to probe deeper into his psyche are continually rebuffed. Pretty soon, she gets sucked into his world and the vicarious thrill of almost being caught one night when they stalk his intended final girl, the “virginal” Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson). However, when the night finally comes for his murders to commence Terry’s conscience comes roaring to the surface, forcing her to pick a side between remaining a fly-on-the-wall documentarian or someone who actually does something to save lives.

This makes Behind the Mask a film of two distinct halves, all black comedy mockumentary for its first hour and then a more traditional slasher for its final 35 minutes. If you don’t know the switch is coming, it’s actually quite jarring, disappointing even, when the mockumentary format completely falls away. Yet, it also introduces a sudden “all bets are off” feeling, particularly when none of Leslie’s planned murders go exactly as he said they would.

Similar to Drew Goddard’s meta classic Cabin in the Woods or Kevin Williamson’s Scream it’s hard to comment on the slasher genre without also indulging in classic slasher conventions. Behind the Mask never quite goes as far with any of this as Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still among the finer examples of how to take a seemingly worn out old genre and breathe some new life into it, winking and laughing while also celebrating. I love it.

PARTING THOUGHTS

  • The horror cameos are strong with this one: Zelda Rubinstein has a small role as a librarian, her last on-screen performance before her death four years later. Robert Englund shows up as Leslie’s own Dr. Loomis, and Kane Hodder cameos as “Autopsy Guy.”
  • For a genre which popularized the phrase “killer pov,” Behind the Mask is among the few slashers to be told from the would-be killer’s actual point of view, not just through the eye holes in his mask.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is currently available to stream on Shudder.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: Dead Alive

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