It’s easy to become cynical to the point of mocking. Yet holding work in such high esteem that the reverence becomes unabashedly sincere can create similar feelings. However, it is never difficult to tell the difference between someone who loves an idea or image versus someone who simply cashes in on the concept to make money. This difference makes Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon a unique phenomenon. For all intents and purposes, it should be too meta, too aware of the genre, and too silly to work. Yet watching Behind the Mask leaves you with a buzz. It’s genuinely a unicorn of meta-comedy, one that is worth watching again and again.
Behind the Mask begins as a mockumentary. A camera crew led by Taylor (Angela Goethals) has found an emerging serial killer. Styling himself after the great horror icons (in this world, Jason, Freddy, and others are real), Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesal) trains for his big day. After all, you can only slaughter a cabin full of teens every once in a while. Taylor and the crew follow Leslie through his steps as he helps them understand his actions are not the work of a madman but elements of an essential ritual.
The humor that director and writer Scott Glosserman pushes through the film makes Behind the Mask one of the funniest films of the 2000s. Not only does every little nod and wink work, but even to the layman, the jokes hit as parody. It is not a dumb screenplay, and at no time does Glosserman ever degrade the genre. In fact, with co-writer David J. Stieve, Glosserman seems obsessed with proving the value of the slasher.
At the same time, Glosserman sets his sights on making a unique found footage horror comedy and an actual inquisition on journalistic ethics. How often can you capture something as special as Leslie’s plans on camera? Could this be the film that unlocks all our issues with serial killers? Or should the camera crew run to warn the girl and police of the terror that awaits them?
Like Scream, Behind the Mask uses intelligent writing to build out its world. Every moment calls back to the classics of the genre, but in the eyes of Leslie, these are ritualistic. He stalks the woman described as his final girl, creating an upsetting blend of horror and comedy out of these moments. As tropes enter the world around the documentary, including an excellent Robert Englund as the “hunter” trying to stop Leslie before his evil is emparted unto the world.
Glosserman’s devotion to framing the mundanity and pure joy of a job-well-done, also makes Leslie into something of sympathetic figure. He blurs the lines between the truly evil acts Leslie promises to commit, and the winning gregarious figure at the center of the film within the film. Yet Glosserman also highlights the frailities of toxic individuals, pulling inspiration from Man Bites Dog to show the far darker, petulant vision of Leslie. Framing his protagonist as both charming and bratty is surprisingly deft for pseduo-mockumentary, an idea that strikes at the heart about real world criminal and monsters. If we are swayed by the mere appearance of competence, are we willing to allow for bad behavior to occur? Given the rise of grifter culture, Behind the Mask becomes something of a prophetic text.
If you are ready for a great little comedy, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon should satisfy. Glosserman strikes surprising thematic gold, while also worshipping the genre he loves. This is how meta-comedies should function. Glosserman’s shell game approach leaves the audience with clear messages, all while providing enough easter eggs and homages to satisfy the hardcore genre fans. Behind the Mask finds itself in rarified air as one of the low-key best slashers of the last twenty years.