Movies We Like
Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon
In the world of the film, our modern day real life boogeymen don’t exist. There’s no Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer. But the cinematic baddies that we’re all well versed in – Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers – all exist in the world of Behind The Mask. They are in fact folklore. Camp fire tales. Legends. The next great killer to join their ranks, whose name will evoke terror and fear to the small, little town of Glen Echo, will be Leslie Vernon. To document both his training and first onslaught, Vernon (Nathan Baesel) has invited a small crew of college filmmakers, fronted by aspiring journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethels), to join him as he becomes the sure-to-be-legendary masked maniac. The results are both frightening and hilarious.
The movie is told using two different filmmaking devices. Portions of the film are shot digitally in documentary/mockumentary format. This is where we meet the charming, unassuming, good looking and very friendly Leslie Vernon, and where he discusses in great detail how he’ll help create the facade of his legend and evoke fear amongst the group of carefully selected teenagers he plans to terrorize. Then when he adopts his murderous persona and interacts with the group of kids he’s stalking, the movie becomes cinematic, switching over to 35mm film, complete with score and creepy lighting and putting us, the audience, smack in the middle of a traditional "slasher" movie.
What are some of Leslie’s trade secrets? For example, early on, Vernon brings the documentary crew to the parking lot of the diner where his chosen "final girl," Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson), works and demonstrates how he’ll start putting a bit of paranoia in his would-be victim. Explaining that every night at closing, she exits the back door to throw out the trash and uses a brick to prop the door open, Leslie has rigged the brick with some clear fishing wire and plans to pop out of the neighboring trees in full mask and costume. When Kelly catches a glimpse of him, he’ll pull on the wire, the door will slam shut behind her, and she’ll run in terror to the front entrance of the diner seeking safe haven. The movie then switches from documentary to cinematic and shows us this entire scenario play out as it would in a movie. So, that’s how doors in horror films always conveniently slam, huh?
Another important aspect of Leslie’s training is cardio. Lots and lots of cardio. "Why so much cardio," asks Taylor? "Well," Leslie explains, "you gotta be able to run like a freakin’ gazelle without getting winded. Plus, there’s that whole thing of making it look like you’re walking when everybody else is running their asses off! And I gotta stay with ‘em!" Aha! So that’s how Michael and Jason always keep right behind their prey.
The true understanding of how and why Leslie does what he does wouldn’t be complete without a visit to his mentor and friend Eugene (a very welcome appearance by Scott Wilson), who is described as a "pro from the old days." We meet his wife Jamie (Bridgett Newton) and she walks the crew out into the back woods where Eugene is buried alive in a sensory deprivation tank just to help "keep him in practice." Eugene offers a tremendous amount of insight and advice from his years of experience in the biz. He mocks the "one hit wonders that make a bloody mess of some sorority out there and get killed or arrested." He tries to convince Taylor of the importance in the line of work he and Leslie have chosen to pursue. In basic terms, for good to exist, there needs to be a balance. There needs to also be evil.
And speaking of good, that’s where Doc Halloran comes in; a tribute to both a character from The Shining and Donald Pleasence’s Halloween character, Dr. Loomis, here portrayed by none other than Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. We also get a wonderful cameo from Zelda Rubinstein of Poltergeist fame. And that’s the brilliant thing about this film. It’s made by people who truly love and respect the genre and know how to homage it properly without flat out copying it. It’s all there in the terrific writing from screenwriter David J. Stieve and right down to the spot-on casting.
Whether the filmmakers of the early '80s knew it or not, when they were crafting a lot of the horror films of that golden era of the "slashers," they were inadvertently formulating a template for how everything goes down in one of these movies; the stereotypes of the characters, the beats that each act must follow, the number and importance of the kills and who dies in what order. Even though none of this was intentional for those films when they were made, Behind The Mask manages to make a strong case that all those coincidences are all merely incredible meticulous planning on the part of each respective killer in those '80s "slashers." In other words, this movie makes every other horror movie we grew up with better than it has any right being because it approaches and explains the material in a very intelligent and methodical way. After seeing this you’ll go back to some of those oldies and think, "Ohhhh! This is way better than I thought!"
In order for a film of this type, with this kind of ambitious storytelling method to work, it has to stand on the shoulders of a tremendous actor and thankfully that’s Leslie Vernon himself, Nathan Baesel. As the movie progresses, we see less of the documentary aspect as it slowly morphs into a full-fledged horror movie and Nathan proves to be a master in both worlds. When it comes to the documentary aspect, you can’t help but immediately like this guy right off the bat and want to be his friend. He’s got this charm and sense of humor that immediately puts you at ease. Then again, when it gets to the cinematic portions of the film and Leslie dons his turtle-esque mask, dirty farmers’ clothes and runs around barefoot with a scythe, it’s intimidating and frightening as hell! As Robert Englund was quoted as saying, "Nathan’s performance as Leslie Vernon evokes a young Anthony Perkins from Psycho." And that’s some mighty high praise. Through Baesel’s performance, Leslie Vernon absolutely earns his place as the next great horror icon/movie maniac.
Fun fact: Although it’s never confirmed in the actual film which famous movie "slasher" Eugene (Scott Wilson) was supposed to be, screenwriter David J. Stieve has hinted in interviews that in earlier drafts of the script, Eugene was always intended to be Billy, the infamous killer from Bob Clark’s 1974 classic Black Christmas!