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BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON
2006
Written by Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve and directed by Scott Glosserman
92 Minutes
Rated R for for horror violence, language, some sexual content and brief drug use.

As I was reading the starring credits, I thought of all the bullshit casting credits I've seen. Gingerdead Man, for example, promised a world of Gary Busey that it refused to deliver. The poster for Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon cheats a little too, but only if you know who Zelda Rubinstein is (as a treat, I'm not going to tell you, but horror fans will probably get a good giggle.) For the most part, though, the credits are right on: this is Nathan Baesel and Angela Goethals's show.

To summarize Behind the Mask would deprive you of the joy of experiencing it for yourself, because it's probably the most brilliant, most meticulously calculated horror film I've seen in a very long time. And more than that, the most complete. And more still, the most daring.

Let's be realistic here for a second. The horror genre - at least in the United States - has been awash in a sea of its own self-knowledge for a while now. Even before Scream, Wes Craven had started the juices cooking with New Nightmare. Like any popularized genre, too, the horror film has slid unceremoniously into formula (it bears mentioning that the slasher formula in particular is near and dear to my heart and is also awesome). With a well worn formula comes satire and self parody, and that's where Kevin Williamson's ill begotten crop of horror films circa 1995-2005 came in. And they plundered it. Satire is all well and good, but while having one guy that knew what the hell was going on worked great for Rolfe Kanefsky's There's Nothing Out There in 1992 (pre-dating Scream a full five years), every movie having this guy really fucking killed the joke and started getting more obnoxious than funny. You see, here's the punchline: a self-respecting horror fan will always know more than the dickhead in the movie does, and will just find him amateurish and patronizing.

How does my scathing critique of the modern self-aware horror film bring us to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon? Simply put, it illustrates how this film was doomed to fail. Which makes it all the more remarkable that it not only succeeds, but for the most part stays ahead of the seasoned horror buff. In fact, it caters directly to that viewer, with jokes within the film that are mildly amusing to the average viewer but uproarious to the veteran (for example, having all the lights in an abandoned house on a remote-controlled fuse). The film is a perfect exploration of the slasher subgenre, but better than that, it dodges being a critique or even passing judgment. It is reverent.

Some of my favorite films are the ones that explore "the spaces between." David Lynch's Lost Highway is so awesome because it doesn't explore the possibilities of plot or direction, but the possibilities of formula, of basically fucking with something the audience took for granted. Likewise, if a slasher film shows you nothing but the payoffs and the scares, Behind the Mask shows you the setup that goes into each and every one. It omits no detail, so academic is its understanding of the slasher film.

Best of all, it's damn entertaining. Everything that could've gone wrong didn't, and about the only thing you'd really ever fault is the direction. Glosserman's direction does waver at times, but given how experimental his film is in general, it's hard to fault him. He's a first timer directing something whose best analogue in recent memory is This is Spinal Tap. Still, his handling of the third act is a bit jarring, and the audience will have things figured out long before the characters in the film do; I'd be willing to suggest this is at least semi-intentional, though, given the subject and nature of the film.

Nathan Baesel must also be singled out for his portrayal of Leslie Vernon, the slasher the film is about. The less said about it, the better; as Leslie Vernon, he must be seen to be believed.

I was really happy with this one and it's easy to understand why it's been a festival darling. Even the message boards on IMDb, usually rife with naysayers willing to bitch about anything and everything and just generally piss in everyone's Wheaties, is largely extremely positive about the film. Every time someone comes up with what they think is a plot hole, someone else is invariably able to demonstrate that the film has actually covered it.

If you can't tell by my sugar shock review of it, I'll just say this: if you love horror, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon might just have been one of the best horror DVD releases of 2007.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.