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

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.

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.

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

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

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