March 22, 2007

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Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (R)
Having been satirized (and then that satire parodied), the psycho killer slasher genre gets a mockumentary with Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a dumb-masking-as-smart horror flick that is smirkily enjoyable in spite of itself.

Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) wants to be Diane Sawyer. Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) wants to be Michael Myers (or Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees). They are a match made in a graduate school journalism documentary. Taylor, in the dull stilted tones of TV news, announces at the beginning of the documentary that she is going to chronicle the rise of Leslie Vernon, a serial killer in the making. He has the back story (his mother was hung; he was nearly drowned as a child), he has the location (his family’s abandoned homestead, which has become a hangout for teenagers), he has his group of teens with its one virginal girl picked out (though his girl might not be a virginal as he thinks). He shows Taylor his future victims and his plans for the big night at the spooky house. He even introduces her to his mentor, a retired serial killer who now lives with his wife out in the country. Taylor pretends a bit of unease about all the planned killing but in truth she is also stalking her sordid prey, the sensational story of Leslie. Taylor and her team follow Leslie as he prepares to enter the evil canon, even following him on his first red-herring murder and meeting his “Ahab,” a psychiatrist named Doc Halloran (played with all sorts of winking and nudging by Robert Englund). Then comes the big night. What will Taylor do? Try to stop Leslie’s murderous plans or try to catch his rise to infamy a spectacular résumé-enhancing sequence?

The pattern of the serial killer movie was laid out step by step in Scream but while that material isn’t fresh it is presented with a somewhat fresh twist here — the virgin survivor girl, the red herring killing, the couple killed mid-coitus aren’t movie types but methods of Leslie’s art. The documentary treats his plans with the self-seriousness of a young artist following in the steps of masters — Kruger and Voorhees, as he and his mentor discuss, were real visionaries. The pretension of this paired with the pretension of Taylor and her film-student crew make for surprising comedy, some of it just in the self-serious way they talk about his plans and in the way Taylor adopts the TV newsmagazine lilt in her questions to him.

The bargain look of this movie also helps it along — I went in expecting nothing but was surprised at how the dialogue was surprisingly sharp, especially when Leslie and Taylor try to dissect his methods or in the throwaway moments about all the preparations for his killings (it is so hard, he tells us, to keep up while appearing to be walking after his running-at-top-speed victims). That it comes at you from a dull, shaky cam landscape gives it all that much more bite.

By the time the documentary conceit is dropped and all the characters enter the horror movie portion of the horror movie, you realize that we’re two thirds of the way to the end with relatively little killing and none of that wearying preliminary build-up that comes when most slasher flicks strain to fill the time before the main character is hunted. The movie is goofy, self-consciously inside and ever so proud at how clever it is and yet somehow, like Taylor’s strange friendship with Leslie, none of the film’s flaws get in the way of liking it. And while likeability isn’t your average horror movie plot twist, kudos to Behind the Mask for managing any kind of twist at all. B-

Rated R for horror violence, language, some sexual content and brief drug use. Directed by Scott Glosserman and written by Glosserman and David J. Stieve, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is an hour and 32 minutes long and is in relatively wide release from Anchor Bay Entertainment