CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy


Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon Scott Glosserman 2006

The Serial Life

An amusing but ultimately unsatisfying horror comedy, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is certainly smarter than most of its oft-winking brethren, but unfortunately smarts only go so far in a genre heavily rooted in primal fear and visceral thrills. Writer/director Scott Glosserman has certainly done his homework and presents one of the most elaborate deconstructions of the slasher genre I’ve ever seen, at times to incredibly amusing results. But when the tone of the movie attempts to move from snarky irony to legitimate horror, Mask proves yet again that it is far easier to joke about scary movies than it is to actually make them.

As local Glen Echo legend would have it, young Leslie Vernon was thrown off a rocky waterfall by an angry mob after killing his parents in the apple orchard, and his body was never found. On the 20-year anniversary of his death, grown-up Leslie (Nathan Baesel of Invasion, here with both arms intact) is gearing up for his comeback. Okay, so that’s totally fun, right? We’ve got a spooky origin story (Leslie was apparently a bastard child and his parents beat and abused him before he snapped), a great location (an abandoned farmhouse in an apple orchard), and the promise of much bloodshed and assorted chaos. Sign me up!

Enter Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), an idealistic young journalist who has gotten Leslie’s permission to document his rise to glory in these last weeks before the anniversary of his death, the night when local teens dare one another to stay the night in the abandoned Vernon farmhouse. Taylor and her small crew of 2 arrive at Leslie’s real house (outside of town – he doesn’t want to spoil the surprise by hanging out at his ancestral home too much) and find him a quirky yet undeniably affable young man whose tendency to switch subjects without warning and play jokes on the crew is even more disorienting than the fact that he’s got his sights set on being the next Jason Voorhees. Sure, Leslie might be a bit eccentric, but if you had been abused mercilessly by your parents, driven to kill them, and then dumped off a cliff by an angry mob, you’d likely be in far worse humor than this guy. He’s actually fun to be around.

Leslie’s that lovable, touchy-feely brand of serial-slaying psychopath probably most thoroughly examined in the brilliant, scathing mocumentary Man Bites Dog (to which Mask owes quite a bit, actually), and more recently seen in American Psycho, and pretty much any later sequel to an established horror franchise where the villains stop being villainous and start spouting wacky one-liners instead (Child’s Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.). And to be fair, there’s certainly a place for that. Leslie’s inappropriate sense of humor and unabashed enthusiasm for his chosen craft is infectious to the audience and even to his documentors, who actually start helping him as he terrorizes his chosen Survivor Girl (we prefer Final Girl here, but whatever), Kelly (the hilariously sincere Kate Lang Johnson), and sets up his ambush of the horny teens. Les even has a mentor for professional advice, retired slasher Eugene (Scott Wilson), an affable, outdoorsy type who lives in a charming home in the woods with his lovely wife Jamie (Bridgett Newton). Even the appearance of an adversary, Dr. Halloran (Robert Englund, in a right funny Donald Pleasance-esque scenery-devouring performance), doesn’t phase him – he’s actually delighted to have an “Ahab” to reckon with.

And again, all this wry fanboy nudge-nudging is perfectly amusing and put to good use within the context of the project, where a perfectly self-aware force of evil is preparing to unleash his fury onto the unsuspecting public. There are even a few clever twists in there that reveal not everyone and everything are quite what they seem, and this serves to up the ante a bit as we near the big climax. When the night of the great bloodbath arrives and it becomes clear to Taylor and her crew that Leslie is indeed intending to slaughter a dozen innocent people in the name of a culture’s abstract need for boogeymen, they finally crack and Leslie kicks them out, warning them not to ruin his night. They decide that since they know his plan, they can stop him – but realize too late that they might have been a part of the plan all along.

And this is where things fall apart. See, we’re right there with the camera crew the whole while, getting a kick out of this guy’s antics and so-crazy-he-can’t-mean-it drive to murder and maim. But when the shit hits the fan, both they and we need to be so shocked, so horrified with what we’ve become a part of, that the bottom drops out from underneath us. And that simply doesn’t happen.

The last half-hour is a tedious exercise in ill-executed horror peppered with some poorly-revealed secrets and bad acting. It never gets scary and yet it asks us to suddenly be terrified, even though we’re watching the same wacky Leslie do exactly what he’s been telling us he’s going to do for an hour. Leslie never becomes the embodiment of evil that he has always dreamed of being – he just bumps off a few lame teens in fairly bloodless, predictable ways (and usually off-screen), and never gets to that moment where we think, “oh my – this cat’s FUCKED UP”. The idea of seeing these teens (who have been viewed as stupid sheep since the beginning) as actual people once the action kicks in is a great one – unfortunately, it’s not used to its advantage nearly enough (despite a hilarious revelation about one of the girls). As it is, things play out pretty much exactly as you would expect from frame one – not exactly what you’re hoping for from a film that outwardly seems to be so smart about genre expectations. So while things could have been capped with a thrilling, blood-soaked bang, they instead end with a shrug.

I hate to point fingers in reviews, but with first time writer/director Glosserman having so much control over the proceedings, I really have to chalk this one up to a mediocre script and a badly-directed third act. Otherwise the leads are well-acted, the photography is great, and some of the comedy bits are incredibly funny (mostly thanks to Baesel’s deadpan-to-goofing mood swings). There’s even a wonderful “storytelling” scene with none other than Zelda Rubenstein (who looks eerily like my landlord, I realized) that adds to the wonderful setup – but again, this movie’s all setup, no payoff. While I have to give it credit for what it does well and want to give it props for pulling off the clever one-two punch of both lampooning slasher flicks and excelling within their rigid confines, that’s sadly not what happens. In the end, it’s another by-the-book, unscary slasher with a few laughs that never manages to get off the ground.

Rating (out of 5):