the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is like a gift to horror fans. “This is my Christmas,” aspiring psycho-killer Vernon says in the hours before his first murderous rampage, and those of us who grew up loving Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and their myriad clones and rip-offs (in the days before Scream introduced ironic detachment to the genre) will feel the same way. Behind the Mask manages to lovingly tweak the conventions of the slasher film while still actually functioning as a pretty damn good modern entry in the form.

The basic conceit is simple – you could sum it up as Scream meets Man Bites Dog, if you wanted to be dismissive, which would be completely wrong considering the sheer amount of passion, invention and talent that went into making this fantastic movie. The film is set in a world where Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddie Kreuger are all real, where they’ve actually spent the last few decades engaged in occasional slaughter sprees. Leslie Vernon is looking to join their ranks, and he’s spent months, if not years preparing. Now in the final days leading up to his debut he contacts journalism grad student/TV station intern Taylor Gentry and offers her the scoop of a lifetime – come see how a psycho-killer prepares. Get a glimpse behind the mask.

Most of the film is shot in mockumentary style with two DV cameras following Taylor as she interviews Leslie and watches him getting into shape (there’s lots of cardio involved in being a slasher – you have to be able to outrun the kids while making it look like you’re just walking, after all), stalking his prey (she even gets involved when he does his first “fly-by,” a brief but menacing encounter where Leslie scares his virginal young target in advance of the actual killings), visiting with his mentor (a retired pre-franchise killer, played by none other than In Cold Blood’s Dick Hickock, Scott Wilson), and creating his backstory. This is obviously a big deal to any reasonable psycho-killer, and Leslie goes to great lengths to establish his bona fides as a young boy who was killed by an angry mob, to establish his “allegedly ancestral home” as a creepy site where local teens go to make out and to establish a possible personal connection between himself and his intended victim.

Every now and again, though, Behind the Mask slips into “horror movie mode,” and the film stock goes from DV to Super 16, the sound goes from simple stereo to surround and we’re actually inside the slasher film Leslie is so carefully constructing. It’s fun and it works, which seems almost improbable. But director Scott Glosserman pulls off the switch in mood and style with aplomb, and by the end of the movie I realized that I would pretty happily plunk down my ten bucks for an actual Leslie Vernon slasher film.

I would especially pay to see a real Leslie Vernon film if it starred Nathan Baesel. He’s the pivotal piece that makes this movie work on a level far beyond novelty. Nathan’s Vernon is a brand new kind of slasher, almost like Patrick Bateman mixed with Freddie and Michael Myers, with a dash of Hannibal Lector thrown in for some added metrosexuality. He’s well-educated and funny, playful and gentle and polite. Baesel has a magnetic smile and the energy of young Jim Carrey, and even some of the comic’s physicality. What’s most impressive about Baesel, though, is his ability to keep up with the film’s mood changes and switch from the arch mockumentary scenes to the more archetypal horror movie scenes – he goes into silent killer mode with chilling ease. If there’s any justice in the world this is a career-making performance.

The other pillar of the film is Angela Goethals as Taylor. She has an ethereal look that reminds me a lot of the young Sissy Spacek – a sort of bloodless, deceptively thin appearance. The film’s main idea, of the documentary crew following this potential killer, rests on her shoulders, since we almost never see the cameramen until the end. She has to keep us convinced of the reality of the world, while also keeping us convinced of the reality of her situation – she has to straddle being excited about getting the scoop with being afraid that maybe Leslie Vernon isn’t just bullshitting her.

What sets Behind the Mask far apart from Scream is the way it approaches the humor. The comedy in this film – and it’s a damn funny film – comes from the characters, not from the situations or the conventions of the slasher film. In retrospect Scream almost feels like Wes Craven lashing out at the genre that had trapped him, and the oh-so-timely ironic aspects feel condescending. In Scream the kids are killed because they’re stupid, and by connection so are we for coming back again and again to films that serve up such predictability. In Behind the Mask the kids are killed because the killer is so insanely, hilariously prepared – Leslie spends hours and hours setting up every aspect of the slaughter night, from placing dead batteries in flashlights to sawing through the branches of trees outside the second story windows. Behind the Mask understands that it’s these conventions that make slasher films so much fun, and more than that it understands that what makes the great slasher films so good is the way they play with your expectations and the conventions.

It’s hard to believe that this is Scott Glosserman’s first film. Behind the Mask is polished and assured, tackling its style and concepts with aplomb and skill. Glosserman wisely doesn’t abuse his DV cameras by turning the mockumentary scenes into Seizure-Vision, and the horror film scenes show a seriously accomplished eye. What’s great is that he fully understands both his formats – the mockumentary stuff is completely deadpan, as it needs to be, while the horror stuff is heightened and drenched in shadows and creepiness. And the gore, while not quite up to the level of the earlier slasher films, is nice – especially a scene where Leslie hands a kid his own heart. Special mention should also be made of Leslie’s mask, which is perfectly designed that it’s sort of silly in the mockumentary portions, but completely works in the horror movie scenes. Movie magic at its finest.

Glosserman also understands the genre from a fan perspective – like Slither, Behind the Mask has plenty of winks and nods at fans. Robert Englund shows up as Leslie’s “Ahab” – a psychologist who is obsessively hunting the killer down and is determined to stop him. I detected more than a little Donald Pleasance in Englund’s delivery of the line, “Come to me, child!” during an early encounter between the killer and his chosen victim (also known as his “Survivor Girl”). Zelda Rubenstein, who I swear to God was dead, shows up in a delicious cameo as an expository librarian, and Kane Hodder is shown as a resident of Elm Street. There’s plenty more (true fans will laugh when it’s revealed that Leslie’s actual last name is Mancuso), and I look forward to catching them all the next time I see this film.

Behind the Mask had its New York City premiere at the GenArt Festival this weekend – as I write this it doesn’t yet have a distributor. I can’t imagine that’ll be the case for long, since this movie is far too great to not get picked up. And it’s far too great for you to ignore. Start getting excited about this movie, which continues 2006’s track record for great horror films, and start getting excited about Glosserman, who is going to soon be going on to great things.

Check out the trailer for Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon here at the official site (it’s an R-rated trailer, and may be considered a touch spoilery for some), and the movie’s MySpace page here.

9 out of 10