Slash Back in Time… Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

(Slash Back in Time is a new article series talking about some of the author’s favorite slasher movies. The slasher genre has been a staple of Mr. HyperAware’s upbringing in his love of cinema, and will be covering anywhere between major studio franchise entries to smaller independent gems. This is one of many new series intended to push the blog into a new direction of film appreciation.)

For the uninitiated, a brief history of the slasher genre…

While the likes of films like Peeping Tom and Psycho may have introduced the world to a new style of horror film, slasher really effectively began in the 70s with giallo cinema. Once Americans took the reins again, we would get a lot of the proto-slasher movies like Black Christmas and Texas Chain Saw Massacre before Halloween and Friday The 13th would change the game entirely. These films would influence the landscape so much that in the summer 0f ‘81, a staggering 31 slasher films were released, effectively saturating the genre.

As the 80s petered out, slasher films had run their course and became something of a joke. In a few short years, it would “literally” become the joke as one of the fathers of the genre Wes Craven would create the Scream franchise, a series of serious slasher films that also made fun of the conventions of slasher films. And while Scream itself was a game changer, the result of its success was the Miramax-era of slick teen slasher films like Valentine, Urban Legend, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Eventually, those styles of films ran their course. The slasher genre wouldn’t really see a major resurgence again until 2003 when we saw the changing of the guard with both Freddy vs. Jason and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The interest in the slasher genre started coming back, but not necessarily in the mainstream, as the 2000s were populated predominantly of films that occupied the torture porn genre. Outside of that, most of the stuff that felt like classic slasher fare came from the indie circuit from people like Adam Green with Hatchet and Joe Lynch with Wrong Turn 2.

When it comes to meta-slasher films like Scream, it’s honestly kind of weird to think back to an era of the genre in which something being meta was something of a novelty. Nowadays, meta is nearly everywhere, especially after the likes of films like The Cabin in the Woods, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and the resurgence of the Scream franchise. But for a time, it was almost rare that any horror film that had any meta angle would see any sort of notice, whether it be on a mainstream level or even a cult-like status.

Suffice to say, one of the most underappreciated gems of that era is Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. 

Something to preface on with Behind The Mask is how it’s underappreciated. At the time of the film’s release cycle, the film made a huge splash among audiences and critics alike at South by Southwest in 2006. The film would eventually get picked up by Anchor Bay, AKA the studio that made most of their home media expenses back by releasing version after version of The Evil Dead on DVD and Blu Ray alike. Unfortunately, due to financial difficulties at the time, Behind The Mask did not get the theatrical release it deserved despite the hype for it, releasing only on forty-five screens across the country before getting pulled after the first week. As one would expect, this tends to be the nail in the coffin for most films released this way.

Of course, in true cult film fashion, Behind The Mask would find its second life on DVD as a pass around movie during Halloween. Behind The Mask quickly found its place alongside the new wave of slashers of the late 2000s, alongside the likes of Hatchet, Laid To Rest, and The Hills Run Red. However, unlike those films, which really lean into the nostalgia of 80s era slasher fare with any meta elements being subtle, Behind The Mask does something very different.

When we talk about metafiction, there are generally different tiers that apply. In terms of horror, slashers more specifically, our minds initially go to the Scream movies. Those films are pointing at other films of the genre and making fun of the tropes, but are also still operating as a serious slasher movie that carries those tropes over. And at the time, that’s all that we really had to go off of as far as meta went in these types of films before meta just became everywhere like it is today. It’s even reached a point where the recent Scream movies aren’t only referencing other slasher movies, but they’re referencing other Scream movies.

Usually a girl in the middle means I put the wrong movie on…

But before we got to something like Cabin in the Woods, which pushed the meta a step further, along comes Behind The Mask. It’s a film that stands out in the pack for a variety of reasons, none the least of which is the depths of inside knowledge it has towards the genre it’s occupying. The difference between this film and the Scream films though is that while Scream simply points the finger towards other horror films, Behind The Mask takes the slasher genre and fully deconstructs it, putting it more in league with Cabin in the Woods.

Behind The Mask is set in a world where the killers of slasher movies actually exist in real life. The opening moments of the film specifically reference Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger as real life monsters who have terrorized their respective territories and became legend as a result. The film goes to such a degree of inside baseball metaness that Kane Hodder is literally one of the neighbors on Elm Street.

“Can I please just take out my trash without kids hunting for Easter Eggs on my house?”

Within this world, we’re following a small group of journalists, led by Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) filming a documentary that is centered around one of these killers, or in this case, a soon-to-be killer. This is none other than Leslie Vernon, played by Nathan Baesel. And much to the surprise of everyone, behind these supernatural terrors are regular flesh and blood people. The documentary in question is to explore the how of what these people do.

The film essentially presents itself in a structure similar to something like Man Bites Dog in the sense that a film crew is going to be following around and recording the thoughts and actions of a serial killer. The difference here though is that the camera crew actually has a conscience and expresses some level of remorse for enabling the behavior of someone who is essentially a psychopath. Yet, they find themselves drawn in further and further into Leslie’s warped philosophies before it ultimately becomes too late.

“Excuse me. I need you book on how to tell when a house is clean.”

One of the biggest factors in terms of the moral conflict for our protagonists has to do with the way that Leslie Vernon is presented. Despite his killer persona being that of a silent wraith with a cherub-style mask, he himself is undeniably charismatic and charming. Baesel does an amazing job at disarming the crew and the audience with his enthusiastic energy. It gives this sense that had this guy not also been a serial killer that he would also be a fun guy to have a beer with. On top of that, he’s also exceptionally well-learned and in great physical shape. It makes it all that much more tragic that his artistic field is that of being a multiple murderer.

This leads us to the thing that makes this film so unique with its brand of meta… It is a true deconstruction of the genre.

When Leslie describes how these slashers are able to do what they do, he’s essentially breaking down all of the tropes associated with the slasher genre and applying a real world logic to them. For starters, he has to do insane amounts of cardio in order to keep up with a group of teenagers trying to run away from him while also appearing as though he’s just walking at normal pace.

Somewhere, Michael Myers is having an asthma attack.

Then it just escalates from there. He applies a fishing line to a brick so that a door will slam on cue to freak someone out. He tampers with old news records in order to build up a legend for himself. He sabotages multiple parts of his farm in order to keep any of his victims from escaping or fighting back. The list is almost endless in regards to how much practicality goes into his methods of murder.

Then there’s the underlying psychological aspects to how Leslie’s mission is meant to go. Most of it is pulled from a lot of Freudian 101-isms (not that I agree with most of them, don’t even get me started). Some of these are really subtle, such as an unspoken code of honor to never kill someone hiding in a closet, even if they know that they’re there, because the closet represents the womb and it’s where we are at our most innocent. But then there’s the bigger picture element of why he targets virgins specifically, outside of his surprise superpower of being able to smell virginity, so to speak.

In this world, the reason that virgins are primarily chosen to be the final girls, or “survivor girls” as this movie refers to them as, is because it’s about their journey of losing their innocence and being reborn as a fighter. Once again using a lot of Freudian terminology and focal points on phallic and yonic imagery, such as referring to the entrance of his setting’s apple orchard as a symbol of the birth canal, and also suggesting that the moment that she arms herself is her empowering herself with a “big, long, hard weapon.”

He explains it less elegantly than I just did.

And then there’s also the “why” of it all. Why would anyone go to the lengths that Leslie does to create his own blood-soaked legend. Well, there are a couple of different answers to this. But they both tie in directly to one of the key figures of Leslie’s life: his mentor and former serial killer Eugene, played by the late great Scott Wilson.

To sidebar for a brief moment, Scott Wilson was one of those actors that, no matter what kind of project he was in, his performances were always grounded in a very American pastoral kind of way. There was an authenticity to everything he did. Not only that, but he’s someone that I’ve apparently been familiar with since a young age, having seen him first as Judd Travers in the Shiloh movies. It wasn’t until later roles of his like in Monster or The Walking Dead that I really took notice of him. Even more so, I was just taken off guard by the fact that my high school theater director is also named Scott Wilson, hence the confusion on my part.

“Now, watch this. This is the part where he tried to tell me it was prime time, bitch!”

When it comes to the character of Eugene, he’s presented to us as a veteran killer that predates the theatricality that came from the likes of Jason, Michael, and Freddy. For him, it operated more like a job. Hit a town, kill as many as possible, move on to the next. So, you can infer that this guy has likely killed hundreds of people, and yet, here he is sitting across from you having a beer and making polite conversation. Matter of fact, early drafts of the script heavily implied that Eugene was in fact meant to be Billy from Black Christmas.

When it comes to the “why” of it all, Eugene tries to explain it in a way that doesn’t paint him as simply a bloodthirsty thrill killer (although, he still might be). His rationale is that for both forces of good and evil to exist in the world, evil needs to come from somewhere in order for good to overcome it. People like him and Leslie are simply there to provide that kind of service. Not just to transform the survivor girls, but also to bring to light their “Ahab”: people that have knowledge of the evil and commit their life to thwarting it. In this case, Robert Englund as Doc Halloran in a role very much like Donald Pleasance in Halloween.

Freddy’s nightmares finally stopped bullshitting.

But then there’s the selfish reason on Leslie’s part. Despite all the talk about how what they’re doing in the long run is actually for the benefit of mankind, there’s this sense that no one would actually go to these particular lengths if they didn’t on some level enjoy it. With Leslie in particular, there’s an unbridled enthusiasm that he has at the prospect of becoming a legend, at becoming immortal. But on a more primal level, the reason is far more simple…

He’s in love.

“I showed you my Crow face. Please respond.”

Take Eugene for example. The man that is not only Leslie’s mentor, but also his idol. He went on to be married to someone who knows him in and out. But how could this be exactly? Well, it’s because it’s heavily implied that Eugene’s wife was also Eugene’s survivor girl. The woman that he terrorized and put through hell came out the other end in love with her aggressor. Granted, this may just be Stockholm Syndrome at its natural conclusion, but to Leslie, that’s the ticket to finding the love of his life.

By the time the film reaches its third act, we’ve seen all the work done leading up to this point. We’ve seen the style of filmmaking be predominantly a first-person found footage movie with moments of a third-person narrative feature (including a scene featuring the late great Zelda Rubinstein). But once the third act kicks in, the entire film flips to being a full on Miramax-style third-person slasher film, and a damn good one. Everything that was set up pays off in more meaningful ways than we expect because it was all broken down to us earlier on.

I won’t go into the spoilers on this one here. Because my description of how that third act pays off can’t do it justice. It’s much better to seek it out for yourselves.

Behind The Mask is such a remarkable film in the pantheon of the meta-horror subgenre that sadly gets overlooked when people seek out the best slasher films of the 2000s. Not until Cabin in the Woods had a film come along to take the conventions of the genre and apply some kind of logic to them while also nestling comfortably among the many others that play it straight.

And as a bonus, the end credits feature one of the best needle drops you can ask for.

Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is available on Blu Ray, DVD, and VOD.

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