The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're revisiting the 2006 slasher mockumentary Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
Imagine a world where the sinister slashers of cinema—Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger—are all real. This is the world of Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. The 2006 behind-the-slays mockumentary follows the titular would-be slasher as he aims to make a horrific legend of his own.
Low budget but ambitious, Scott Glosserman's directorial debut plays like the scrappy lovechild of Scream and This Is Spinal Tap. Angela Goethals stars as Taylor Gentry, an aspiring investigative journalist who leads a morbidly curious three-person film crew as they interview and stalk alongside the eponymous aspiring serial killer. Unexpectedly, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) is a wiry, young man with the look and sparking charisma of a young Jim Carrey. Slashing is his passion. But it takes a lot of work, planning, and love of the craft. Leslie eagerly guides Taylor's crew down the rabbit hole, teaching her lingo, tricks of the trade, and the importance to a brutal, bloody and sex-streaked backstory.
Glosserman and his co-writer David J. Stieve school Taylor's team—and by extension the audience—on the iconography of the slasher subgenre. First, you need a humble small town setting. Then, the unearthed lore of an atrocious crime, which was committed then buried deep. From this, a slasher will rise to reap revenge. He'll target a cliched cast of characters, slicing up sexually active cheerleaders, jocks, and stoners, all to terrorize the sweet, virginal girl who might escape his malevolent clutches. While horror movie historians/theorists will call her the "Final Girl," Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon dubs her the "Survival Girl." And as Leslie invites Taylor and us to stalk her, it's easy to get caught up in the familiarly sinister and voyeuristic fun of it all. But as our audience surrogate, Taylor will hit a point where she is confronted with the grim finale and her own complicity.
The big night arrives. Leslie has trained in cardio, slight of hand, and menacing poses. He's rigged a sprawling farmhouse to be the perfect place for a debaucherous teen party and inescapable killing ground. He's plotted who will die first and where, when the bodies will be found, where the rest will try to run only to be snared by his merciless scythe. But once Taylor and her team hear the first screams, Leslie's Pied Piper-like spell is broken. They no longer want to blithely follow to witness the Ahab or the Survivor Girl or the Red Herring. They just want to get out. But it's not a great idea to cross a slasher.
Curiously, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon doesn't fully commit to its mockumentary conceit. Throughout, the film switches tone and perspective, leaping from its dark humor and slasher guide to a more traditional, ominous vibe while focusing on Kelly (Kate Miner), the blond, bubbly teen whom Leslie has singled out as his Survivor Girl. In these scenes, the score emerges and swells to warn us of danger. The cinematographer switches from frenetic handheld shots to smooth, patient tripod shots with richer colors. With Taylor, Leslie is loose-limbed, garrulous, and funny. With Kelly, he is grim and silent, doom and death personified. Accordingly, the performance style shifts from gruffly playful to theatrical terror. Amping its horror cred, Behind The Mask folds in cameos from Poltergeist's Zelda Rubinstein and A Nightmare on Elm Street's Robert Englund, though not as their classic characters. Still, their appearances are wickedly amusing.
When aiming for that slick studio horror aesthetic, Behind The Mask's budget shows a bit. Yet there's a strange magic to this daring indie that entreats us to laugh and scream as it delivers a passionate lesson on the slasher subgenre. As messy as its blend of parody and earnest homage can be, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is nonetheless a sharp and darkly entertaining exploration of slashers and the audiences that love them.