Thursday 3 December 2009

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

I have complained at length, here and on TheAvod, about self-reflexive cinema. In the post-Scream era, a lot of people jumped on the postmodern bandwagon, but it seemed they forgot why that movie was such a success. It wasn't because it folded in on itself, but how it did so. Scream was self-aware without being self-conscious about it, but it's just the opposite for a lot of horror films today. If a movie takes itself seriously, then it shouldn't draw attention to itself with ironic, and often poorly written, insight.

Now, that's not to say that I don't enjoy postmodern horror, I just find that most of it is terribly done. So you can understand that I was a bit anxious when I sat down to watch Behind the Mask. The movie blends mocumentary with narrative film to tell the story of Leslie Vernon's attempt to become a legendary serial killer in the same vein as Jason, Freddy, and Michael.

Many years ago, Leslie Vernon was taken from his home by an angry mob after he brutally murdered his abusive parents. Leslie was thrown from the top of a waterfall and was never seen or heard from again. Some say that if you till the soil in the Vernon apple orchard under a havest moon, the dirt will become thick with blood, and if you listen close, you can still hear the creaks and groans of his mother's body as it hangs from a tree, swaying in the wind. Now, years later, Leslie has returned to his ancestral home to murder a group of kids partying in his house. And grad students, Taylor, Doug, and Todd are there to document it.

Taking a page from Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask is about a group of documentary filmmakers who follow Leslie around as he plans is killing spree, and they even help out once or twice. In the world of the film, Jason Voorhees and the like are real people, and Leslie hopes to become like them--iconic. So he plans and works hard to ready himself for his big night. And while we follow him as he stalks his "survivor girl" and tours us around his property, he tells us about what it means to be a killer, how it all works.

Most people don't know that it takes months of planning and preparation to select the right group of kids, and choose the right final girl. A killer has to make sure he can accurately predict what people will do, where they will run to. And a killer has to work hard to train his body and his mind to withstand the endurance trail that is the horrific killing spree. Leslie walks us through these revelations with good cheer and introduces us to his mentor, Eugene, who terrorized nubile teens back in the 60s.

To counter Leslie's moral ambiguity and general cheerfulness is Taylor, the documentary's director and host. She's clearly opposed to what Leslie plans to do, but has committed herself to documenting his story, and tempers her outrage with the false hope that Leslie might not actually follow through. Only when Leslie claims his first victims, does Taylor fully understand the kids are in a horror movie.

Behind the Mask uses all the stereotypes and archetypes we've come to expect from horror to pit the genre against itself in what might be the most successfully recursive horror movie I've ever seen. Not only does the movie provide a humorous discourse on genre expectations, it also breaks down genre analysis by explaining how imagery is used to communicate ideas about characters and story.

If I had to complain about something (and let's face it, I usually do) it would have to be Taylor. Once she figures out Leslie's endgame, she fails to use her insider knowledge to her advantage and continues to operate within the confines of Leslie's horror movie. This would suggest a kind of inevitability, that horror movies generally work off the same standard script. I don't really have a problem with this, but I would have preferred if Taylor at least tried to break free from convention only to find that she can't.

The rest of the movie, however, is wonderfully done. The documentary sequences are delightfully crummy, and Leslie himself is very engaging and his enthusiasm is infectious. The film also features Robert Englund, and that's always a plus. I really enjoyed Behind the Mask, and it's given me a new appreciation for all the hard work that Jason, Freddy, and Michael do.


Andre Dumas said...

I love this movie! I was pretty much laughing out loud the whole time. I need to watch it again asap! But what a surprise, I feel like people don't talk about this movie enough. Start spreading the word- this movie rocks.

the jaded viewer said...

The best horror movie of 2007 in my opinion.

The "twist" of our final girl was pretty LOL too.

deadlydolls said...

I love love love Leslie Vernon, especially since I watched it just a few months after reading Carol Clover's Men, Women, & Chainsaws and spotted all the blatantly obvious nods, like Taylor, Leslie, and Kelly all having ungendered names. My only issue with the film is that the final half hour loses some of its smarts and comes dangerously close to becoming the slasher it's trying to parody, but I forgive that for 60 other minutes of genius.

Great review!