Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Now, here is a great premise for a horror movie. The idea here is that a documentary crew gets to follow the life of a slasher villain for a few days while he goes about setting the stage for his next killing spree. In this world, the likes of Michael, Jason, and Freddy are real, and being a slasher villain is a real profession. We are taken behind the scenes of a life of one such killer. Hence the “behind the mask” from the title.

Leslie Vernon is played by Nathan Baesel, who makes for a likable protagonist/antagonist. Much of the film’s first hour is spent watching Leslie deconstruct the slasher genre. A journalist, Taylor (Angela Goethals), and her two cameramen, get to film him and interview him. We learn how much work a slasher villain has to do in order for everything to go as planned, why certain clich├ęs exist, why slasher villains exist in the first place, and all of the little tricks of the trade, so to speak. This is all really funny, and if you ever wanted to see a deconstructionist approach to slasher movies — this goes farther than Scream — this is one made just for you.

With about 30 minutes left, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon switches styles completely. The first hour is filmed exactly like a documentary. The cinematographic style, the editing, and the situations — an sit-down interview — all make it seem like the film is a documentary. But at the hour mark, it switches into a conventional slasher film. It’s here when the film loses momentum, even if it does this switch purposefully and by design.

See, watching the film openly and lovingly mock and reference the slasher movies of the past is enjoyable. Seeing it try to explain away some of the conventions of the genre is almost cute. Viewing its attempt at playing out like a conventional slasher movie — granted, one in which some of the victims are aware they’re going to be killed and try to thwart the killer at every turn — is fun, but nowhere near as fun as what we just saw.

This is a film for fans of the genre who also recognize that it is, at times, a little silly and a little stupid. If you haven’t seen many slasher films in your life, or if you have an outright disdain for them, you won’t want to watch Behind the Mask. You won’t get the references and while you’ll probably understand what’s being deconstructed, you won’t get as much out of it as a true fan of the genre. This is a movie by fans for fans and if you don’t fit into that category you’ll want to look for entertainment elsewhere.

A film like this could probably skate by on references to more obscure entries in the genre and be considered worthwhile by the genre’s audience. Thankfully — and perhaps this makes its familiarity entrance point lower — that’s not what it’s about. Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street are the only main films that get extensively referenced, and if you’ve seen a couple of films from at least two of these franchises, you’ll probably make it through without missing too much.

So, yes, it’s clever and funny for 2/3 of its running time. In its final third, it’s less scary than it should be and less humorous than the material that precedes these scenes. It’s just kind of bland, doing a mediocre, yet knowing, imitation of a generic slasher film. The cleverness is lost and having the primary character switch from Leslie to Taylor means that a lot of energy is drained, too. It’s not that Taylor is lifeless, but Leslie is so much more enjoyable to watch. He’s a bundle of joy and enthusiasm.

That’s not to say that Nathan Baesel is a great actor, but he’s fun to watch but even if this isn’t the dramatic material that most actors truly desire. Neither he nor Angela Goethals are veterans of the silver screen, although they both have worked on television in the past. Both come across as natural as they can given the material. Veteran horror actors such as Robert Englund and Zelda Rubinstein appear as well, the former as a Sam Loomis-type character, the latter as an exposition librarian.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a smart, witty, and terribly funny deconstruction of the slasher genre. It has an entry barrier — if you haven’t seen at least a few slasher films and you understand their conventions, you’re going to miss a lot of the fun of this film — but if you reach that and you enjoy this genre, you’re going to have a good time. It’s a lot more enjoyable in its first hour, before it transitions into the genre it’s satirizing, but it’s still well worth checking out.

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