25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

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I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

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The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

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And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

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And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

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Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

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