JFF Review: ‘Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon’

Long title, interesting premise, very entertaining.

Since the dawn of man, there have been killers. Whatever their motivation, these psychopaths have appeared out of nowhere, gleefully killed one or more people, then vanished without a trace. But more recent reports of such crimes have taken a turn for the supernatural, maniacs with names like Krueger, Voorhees, and Myers, seemingly unstoppable killing machines that can reach beyond the grave or even into your nightmares to get you. And now a new killer is about to rise, and you’ll see what it takes to become the stuff of legend. His name is Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel).

New Line Cinema’s Scream gave us the “Ghost-faced Killer” (or killers, more appropriately) by taking the audience behind the scenes in the context of the film and let them in on a the secrets (plausible or not). Two sequels later, the Scream series is as much a joke as any other; nothing really seems original or interesting anymore. The genre has become such a joke as to create heated negotiations between studios as to whose monsters they can pit after one another to push one more movie out the door and make another dollar. And it’s not the first time; Universal was once infamous pairing up its top creatures for features, like Wolfman vs. The Mummy.

But the clever geniuses of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon have managed to squeeze one more ghastly gasp out of this all-but-dead genre. The would-be new killer in question locates and persuades a documentary film crew to showcase his methods in becoming the next monster of everyone’s nightmares. Coverage includes picking the proper target, the importance of training, preparing a site for stalking and killing to the killer’s advantage, and planting the seeds in the community to become the stuff of legend. Even “industry standard terms” are covered, like what an “Ahab” is and why that’s important.

Yet even while the characters (and the audience) are lured deeper into the situation and closer to the main event, the natural humor of situation never completely quiets the increasing dread that Leslie isn’t a joke and what he says will happen is really going to happen. The documentary crew even chuckles uneasily off-camera as if to reassure the “star” of their feature that, when the killing starts, they somewhat approve of it all as long as they stay out of the cross hairs. After all, isn’t this man bragging about being a one-man killing machine that’s already thought out everything his victims will do to escape him?

It’s easy to say that Behind the Mask is a sort of Scream meets The Blair Witch Project. But it’s the star, Nathan Baesel, who must and does sell the entire film; with the energy of a young Jim Carrey channeling Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Baesel then completely switches gears into “stone-faced killer mode” to sell his game face completely. Angela Goethals stars as the documentary interviewer and is the first to catch on to how serious everything is about to get yet believably presses on right through to the end. Stars like Robert Englund (as a dark hero obsessed with stopping evil) and Scott Wilson (as a retired former serial killer who was never caught and now happily married) lend even more credibility to the production.

The payoff, of course, is also the film’s crutch and almost its undoing. At the edge of becoming a true cult classic, The Rise of Leslie Vernon isn’t merely a documentary of an up-and-coming serial killer, it’s also a member. In becoming what it’s poking fun at, taking the rest seriously becomes a challenge. Still, the filmmakers charge ahead as though nothing has changed; even the ending sticks with the theme and fulfills it original premise. Behind the Mask is cinematic gold for fans of the genre, a romp through the good ol’ days before horror films became Japanese remakes or rated PG-13; here’s to many successful years of terrorizing victims, Leslie Vernon… cheers!

(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)


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