I have ten rules of writing that I keep pinned up on the wall next to me. I wrote them myself as reminders of what I feel are the seminal guidelines of storytelling. One of these is particularly appropriate in this case:
Story is nothing, Plot is something and Narrative is everything.
Behind the Mask is the ultimate validation of my theory. It takes a well worn story and plot, and faithfully follows the template of every slasher film that’s come before. Yet because the narrative is so strong, the end result doesn’t just work, but blows you away by how extraordinarily it works. It’s such a fresh and thrilling movie that one can’t help but be swept along, gaping in amazement. Mask isn’t a spoof, reinvention, recreation, send-up, reincarnation or parody of a slasher film; it’s the bona-fide 100% all natural real thing.
The movie takes place in a world where Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Fred Krueger all exist for real; and advances the theory that none of these maniacs are supernatural per-se. No more than a gifted magician is. They’re just good at tricking their victims and the survivors into thinking that they are. Fledgling documentarian Taylor Gentry sets out to interview a contender for the next great supernatural psycho killer, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares for his first teenager stalk and chop. The mockumentary parts of the movie are hysterical. Unlike other psycho killers Leslie is handsome and talkative. If you didn’t know better you’d think him unthreatening. At one point he even notes how unfair it is that his victims get to run while he has to walk everywhere yet still keep up with them; and you can’t help but giggle in sympathy.
Then there’s a moment near the end of the film where Gentry says “Stop the camera!” and the documentary is over, and the horror movie begins… for real this time. And we realize just how methodically we’ve been led towards this moment, the film’s played us from the beginning just as surely as Leslie Vernon is playing those teens that he’s going to kill in that old house. To be able to turn on dime like that, and still be effective, is nothing short of genius.
Comparisons to other “faux” documentaries (Spinal Tap for example) are not very accurate; for one thing the cinematography in Mask is leaps and bounds ahead of any of those. Jaron Presant’s work may be subtle but it’s ingenious. He seamlessly mixes handheld style camerawork with regular shots to give you the effect of a movie-like documentary. So that when we switch to full blown slasher mode, it’s not jarring.
For another thing, unlike Tap, this isn’t a parody. I think the worst impression you could get about Mask is that it’s a comedy with aspirations of horror. Sure, it has a sense of humor and is VERY funny at times, but nonetheless the film takes itself seriously. Actor Nathan Basael is amazing in the role of Leslie Vernon, alternating between goofy comedic charm and creepy menace, sometimes both within the same scene. He sits there chattering away about the how-to of psycho killing with a little kid’s glee and gives everyone the impression that he’s honest and open, but in retrospect reveals almost nothing about himself in the process. Basael has taken a character that could easily have been played as a joke and made him into a complex and nuanced man.
In fact, every performance in this film is excellent, no matter how tiny the part. First time director Scott Glosserman really gets the best out of his cast. People like Basael and Angela Goethals (as Taylor Gentry) remind you that not every young actor/actress gets by solely on their looks. While old pros like Scott Wilson as a retired killer, Zelda Rubenstein (who gives her best performance in years with a role that in any other hands would not have sounded 1/10th as genuine) and Robert Englund in the role of Leslie Vernon’s old Doctor/Nemesis, remind us why we call them Pros with a capital P. Englund in particular has really grown into his face and he’s matured enough to be able to leave the wisecracking Krueger persona behind for good. I really could see him evolve into a Donald Pleasance/Christopher Walken/Anthony Hopkins type actor where he gives extra credential to whatever movie he’s in just by being there.
Writing-wise, Behind the Mask doesn’t so much deconstruct the slasher genre as slice it open like an autopsy to explore its subtext and symbolism. Most people see a guy with a mask and a knife chasing a cheerleader and they wouldn’t think that there’s deeper meaning, but if you bother to look you’ll find it. Leslie Vernon doesn’t think of himself as a killer or a psycho, he sees of himself as an agent for change. Someone who cares so much about the last surviving girl of his rampage that he wants to help her cross into what Joseph Campbell called the first threshold, putting himself into the role of the evil guardian of that threshold. He cares so much that he’s willing to risk letting her kill him just so that she can grow as a human being. It’s that kind of plausibility and logic that sets Behind the Mask apart from other slasher films. Most of your average horror movie buffs may not notice how deep this all is, either because they just wanna see blood flying around or because they haven’t read “The Masks of God” yet, but that doesn’t matter because they are still aware on a subconscious level and respond accordingly. This is one of those perfect fun films that can be enjoyed by all. If you’re a gorehound, you’ll laugh your a*s off at the cutting humor and love how faithful this is to the 80’s slashers; and if you’re an art snob you’ll find a lot here to discuss and analyze.
This is a film made with total, committed, complete and pure love. We immediately know where director Scott Glosserman’s heart is when, in a short montage about Jason, Fred and Myers, we see the houses where the movie slashers stalked their victims; and the houses that are shown are the actual houses from the original movies. A lesser director would have faked it. But you can’t fake true love.
Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is, in its own way, a masterpiece. There’s no two ways to say it. This is the best horror movie to come by in years and the best slasher movie since Craven made Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. If you’re any kind of a fan you should already be out the door running to the nearest theatre showing this thing.