The horror genre can easily be imagined as a toy crane machine. Optimists high on past successes slide in dollar bill after dollar bill in wishful attempts to grab hold of something once again worth time and money. Anyone controlling that seductive tri-claw of fate will make instant contact with Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Watch it break free of the interconnected heap of generic fluff filled pieces surrounding it without being dragged back down. Watch with baited breath as it levitates gracefully towards you. Revel in the thrill of the drop, that one tense moment where a bounce off of the thick plastic lip could yield failure or success. Feel the sting of disappointment as, after all that work, your Voorhees/Myers/Kruger caricature has a damned hanging thread. Ignore its existence with a neat cut from a pair of scissors or yank that thread like a band-aid and hope the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.
Take the scissors option and you’ll enjoy the thing as much as you would have if the thread was flush in the first place. If, like me, the latter is far too tempting to be left untouched, you’ll find said yank does not unravel the entire cuddly guy, but it does open up a noticeable hole. A cyst you’ll grow to love over time, for sure, but it is, for the time being, a noticeably less-satisfying conclusion to a story that could, under marginally different circumstances, have been perfect.
Leslie Vernon, a legend in the town of Glen Echo for killing his parents before being thrown over a cliff by the vengeful town folk, is on the verge of hatching his farmhouse-teen-slaughter plot that will culminate in a showdown with his carefully chosen survival girl. Vernon, played by newcomer Nathan Beasel, grants a trio of grad school documentarians carte blanche to his life. He explains the attraction to the serial killing game, laments its lack of heart since the Myers, Voorhees and Krugers of the world have gone inactive, and breaks down his own intricate plot with infectious enthusiasm.
The whole first half is an inspired combination of writing and direction, playing gleefully in a sandbox of genre conventions to great viewer delight. I will not retell every bit of material, as in regards to this film it would be like bullet pointing a fine comedians set. That said, Vernon’s elaborate recipe for coaxing controlled chaos out of the teens is, for me, the apex of the film. It is a spot on effigy of the scripts of countless slashers and a high cliff to serve as the jumping off point for the climax’ free fall. Against our well wishes, this free fall sees things become rather counter-intuitive.
Everything prior is a smart spin on the infrequently visited realm of interreferential filmmaking, but the finale becomes as predictable as the predictable films it just got done satirizing. One could posit this is an intentional dig on the state of the genre, that predictable isn’t just what works, but is what people secretly want. However, that is a goat I don’t scape on. I think Glosserman really wanted a grand slam finale, but was only able to manage an in-field home run. The game is won all the same, the score still a sizable victory, but it isn’t a shut out.
The problem isn’t in the acting. It isn’t in the mocumentary style. It is that Glosserman, and by extension Leslie Vernon, spends an hour warming up to an eager crowd, telling great party stories, and then clears his throat only to realize there is nothing left to say that hasn’t already been said. Behind the Mask is like a long palindrome with a few letters off whose failure at being itself doesn’t become apparent until the end. If you don’t care that it is trying to be something as complicated as a palindrome, none of this matters.
Make no mistake, this can hardly be considered a death blow to the film’s entertainment value. Behind the Mask is still one of the more cherished offerings in recent memory. Were it not for the film’s forefront self-examination, such complaints would never be registered. Given its nature, though, it would be unfair not to turn the film’s own magnifying glass back on itself.
Considered by many as one of the genre gems of not just this year, but the handful prior, the tardiness of this review is inexcusable. So late to the party, my recommendation of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, an undeniable, if vaguely flawed, hoot, seems retrospectively unimportant at this point. Me telling you, a presumed horror fan, that you will indeed like Leslie Vernon is like telling an alcoholic they should have another drink.
However, sticking with the libation theme, I am more so in the camp that Leslie Vernon falls just short of being top shelf stuff. It goes down smooth with no hint of a bitter after taste, no doubt, but it doesn’t quite massage all of your senses simultaneously. Unquestionably funny and chess-club intelligent, Glosserman and Stieve’s script is a pleasant rumination on genre conventions. Connecting with the audience right out of the gate, thanks almost wholly to the charisma of Nathan Baesel as the titular killer, BTM:TROLV is a must see, it just isn’t as smart as its devilish thesis proposes.