Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

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Scott Glosserman’s feature debut Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a ‘postmodern slasher’ whose characters openly discuss and deconstruct their own subgenre’s conventions even as they struggle to break truly free of them. This inevitably has earned the film comparisons to Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), which, along with Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), set out to reinvigorate the then moribund subgenre by driving a postmodern blade through its very heart. Scream looked backwards to look forward, allowing its characters, themselves avid consumers of slasher movies, to acknowledge the past rules while rewriting the playbook.

Though a commonplace in reviews of Glosserman’s film, the comparison to Scream is a somewhat lazy one, requiring qualification. When Scream came out, horror was in rather poor health, and in dire need of the sort of piercing self-diagnosis that postmodernism provided. Yet by the time, a full decade later, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon emerged, horror had already made a full recovery, and was playing with new forms (J-horror, torture porn, found footage). And the truth is, the slasher has adopted a self-conscious attitude towards its own tropes right from its very early days. In order to throw off viewer’s expectations, any new slasher would have self-consciously to react to and against all the slashers that preceded it. The very fact that John Carpenter’s paradigmatic slasher Halloween (1978) has a calendar date in its title puts it in a knowing dialectic with Bob Clark’s ur-slasher Black Christmas (1974) – indeed, famously Clark had outlined the basic plot (and title) of Halloween to Carpenter as the concept for a putative sequel to his own film. Of course, sequels inevitably offer a knowing response to their originals – and slashers spawn sequels at a much more bludgeoningly rapid rate than perhaps any other subgenre has managed. So if, with their recurrent tropes and tricks, slashers come heavily codified, then that reflexive, subversive streak which we call postmodernism has always been inscribed in the slasher code, to keep even the savviest viewer guessing whodunnit, whydunnit and whowillsurvive. 

You only need to see films like Bruce Pittman’s Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987), Michael A. Simpson’s Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) and Marina Sargenti’s Mirror Mirror (1990) to realise that New Nightmare and Scream were certainly not the first horror titles to feature characters who were themselves connoisseurs of horror – even if Craven’s films did give much greater prominence to this sort of self-aware metacinematic commentary. In any case, with its killer who wants his philosophy and handiwork recorded on film, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon owes a far more obvious debt to Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog (1992) and Julian Richards’ The Last Horror Movie (2003) for its postmodern form.

Set in a world where iconic movie slashers Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are – or were – real killers whose sprees have become legendary, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon profiles Leslie (Nathan Baesel), a young wannabe mass murderer who has devoted years to studying his line-up of co-ed victims and to setting up an abandoned farmhouse (with a history) for the overnight massacre. Now that his plans are near their fruition, he has invited journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and her largely unseen cameramen Doug (Ben Pace) and Todd (Britain Spellings) to document his deadly deeds – and the film’s first two acts constitute their footage, as Leslie talks them through the tricks of his trade, and the murderous tradition which he deeply respects – even if he intends to introduce a few new twists of his own. Part of the joke here is that Leslie is painstakingly restaging reality – scripting scenarios, planting evidence, introducing props, dressing his set – to make it conform to trite horror movie conventions. 

From early on it is clear – as he performs sleight of hand for the camera and messes with the crew – that Leslie is a trickster, and thoroughly unreliable. When he talks Taylor through the carefully plotted steps of his spree, even introducing her to his (maybe) retired murder mentor Eugene (Scott Wilson) and Eugene’s ‘hot’ survivor/wife Jamie (Bridgett Newton), viewers might naturally wonder about the precise part that this university reporter – initially excited, eventually horrified – and her crew are playing in Leslie’s grand scheme, and how on earth it can make sense for a murderer to have both his intentions and his identity revealed on camera. When in killing mode, Leslie does indeed put on a literal mask, as well as a whole series of gestures cribbed from previous masked killers – but his to-camera clowning (and pontificating) is also its own metaphorical brand of mask, as he conceals as much as he reveals. Even his titular surname, Vernon, is an act. If Leslie manipulates the film’s events as though he were the director of a movie, he is also – like the director of The Blair Witch Project (1999) whose found-footage style has influenced Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon – not filling his cast in on every detail of the script.

Although Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon was shot in Portland and its outlying towns in Oregon, it is nominally set in Glen Echo, Maryland – a real place no doubt chosen for the resonance of its name. For Glen Echo is, as Taylor describes it in her opening to-camera reportage, “a picture postcard community that is itself representative of a thousand small towns found all across America” – and the communities that she has in mind are those, like Friday the 13th’s Crystal Lake, Halloween‘s Haddonfield and A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Springwood (all expressly name-checked), where men have not only carried out murder sprees, but also returned to repeat their outrages in subsequent years(/sequels). In other words, Glen Echo is a hall of mirrors reflecting its own genre influences, an echo chamber in which all the archetypal motifs of the standard slasher are present and correct.

No surprises, then, that this all-American township should accommodate cameos from Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street) as a Sam Loomis figure, Kane Hodder (Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Parts VII-X) as an Elm Street resident and one-time neighbour of Krueger, and Zelda Rubinstein (medium Tangina Barrons from the three original Poltergeist films) as an exposition-happy librarian. For in Glen Echo, the horrific past keeps coming back, and is constantly being remade. The results are a witty, smart, often very funny killer thriller, reverse-engineered so that all its workings show – and as Taylor becomes ever more complicit in the unfolding horrors that she documents, she will discover that an ironic postmodern distance is no real defence against the boogeyman that is our primal fear.

Summary: Scott Glosserman’s metaslasher lays out the rules and obeys them too, only not in the conventional order.

© Anton Bitel