Ever since Wes Craven decided to hack to pieces the slasher genre he helped (in part) to create with 1996′s Scream, various filmmakers have attempted to make ironic or “clever” films that expose the now trite cliches that string hapless slasher films together. Don’t say you’ll be right back, etc etc – playing on the tiredness of these tropes only worked because these things had become the empty boxes that slasher directors needed to fill in to make their “paint-by-numbers” films. So if you came across Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, made in 2006 by Scott Glosserman, then you could be forgiven for thinking it was just another one of these hackneyed attempts at postmodernism.
Behind the Mask tells the tale of Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a wannabe slasher who has been studying his predecessors in preparation for joining their ranks. In the world of the film, Freddy and Jason et. al. were real men, using trickery to feign supernatural powers and thus giving birth to legends. Leslie himself borrows a local legend about a murdered boy to give himself a “mythos”, and he sets up the slaughter of a bunch of forgettable teenagers in a farmhouse. He’s even selected one of them to be his “survivor girl”, in the mould of Halloween‘s Laurie or Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy. The film is told from the point of view of a local journalist, Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) who is making a documentary about his plans. Leslie shows her all of his preparations, designed to make the final slaughter look spontaneous. When it comes to the night itself, will Taylor and her crew film the killing, or intervene?
Behind the Mask is a film that could not exist without the ‘classic’ slasher movies, such as Halloween and Terror Train. Indeed, it’s rooted heavily in horror film theory. Academic Carol Clover first suggested the concept of the “final girl” in her 1992 book, Men, Women and Chainsaws. This “final girl” is the virginal good girl who survives while her sexually active and misbehaving friends are murdered, and she achieves a rebirth when she kills the slasher at the end of the movie. The final girl must turn from her path of goodness and embrace destruction in order to survive. As a result, she can indeed be termed the “survivor girl”, as Leslie puts it. It’s the film’s reliance on these theories that stops Behind the Mask being another tired rehash of horror tropes, and turns it into an interesting expose of the cultural beliefs that underpin this particular sub-genre.
Indeed, it would be all to easy for Behind the Mask to come across as being “ironic” or “knowing”, and if it were pitched slightly differently, it would probably come off as smug. Instead, it’s clear that the film has been made by people who truly love their genre, who respect its heritage and understand its mechanics. The cliches are not exposed simply so they can say “Look! Look! That’s why this bit happens the way it does” – instead, the cliches themselves are almost lifted to mythic status due to Leslie’s slavish devotion to them. Even then, he’s not following them because he has to – but rather because they work. Furthermore, the presence of horror demi-god Robert Englund as Doc Halloran (a character Leslie refers to as his “Ahab” – think Donald Pleasance in Halloween) and horror Hollywood royalty Zelda Rubinstein as a librarian lift Behind the Mask above those films that seek to poke fun for cheap laughs or knowing smiles, and places it on a more intellectual level.
Of course, a film can never be the sum of its cleverness, and Behind the Mask works due to the stellar performances put in by Nathan Baesel and Angela Goethals. Taylor is ambitious and works hard, but possesses enough common sense and general morality to stop her falling into the “hard-nosed and hard-hearted reporter” role made so memorable by Courtney Cox in Scream. Leslie genuinely loves and understands what he’s doing, and his belief is that the infamy he will earn will more than justify his actions. He’s not a fame hunter – he’s seeking to perpetuate humanity’s need for fear. Glosserman manages to generate an even level of suspense throughout (even though we think we know what will happen by logically following the tropes to their natural conclusions) and the film hums with tension. I actually can’t recommend it enough.
Plus, I defy any horror fan not to enjoy a film where Robert Englund cracks the ‘ham’ level up to 11.