Nightmare on every street

‘Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon’ uses humor to pontificate on the role of the movie slasher

Matt Graham

Horror movies have been just a little bit too serious of late. With “Saw,” “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” and “Hostel” all in a gruesome competition to see who can make the most whacked out, demented and gore-filled films, we’ve lost track of what really matters in a good horror pic – the comedy.

“Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon”
DIRECTED BY: Scott Glosserman
STARRING: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund
RATED: R
PLAYING AT: Regal Brooklyn Center Stadium 20, AMC Eden Prairie Mall 18

“Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” takes the “Scream” formula of the self- aware horror flick and modifies the format for a post-reality-television world. Rather than retread old ground covered by Wes Craven’s series and the “Scary Movie” franchise, it takes the formula and makes it its own, providing maybe the smartest deconstruction of the slasher film to date.

The first half of the movie is shot almost entirely with a shaky handheld camera, “Blair Witch”-style. A group of graduate students led by Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) have tracked down Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), an up-and-coming supernatural masked killer in the mold of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.

The crew accompanies him as he scouts out a group of high school students, looking for just the right gang of attractive, athletic teenagers to stalk and kill. Just one catch, the clique needs a virgin to serve as Vernon’s “Survivor Girl” – the innocent, timid teenager who will be inspired by his brutality to take charge and get out alive, becoming a more complete person in the process.

Baesel’s Vernon character is the glue that holds the movie together as the wide-eyed and goofy attention hound. Without his mask, he looks more like some SoCal American Idol wannabe than a vicious murderer. This makes his training regimen – which includes scouting out his planned murder scene to bolt the windows, using yoga to slow down his heart to fake death and practicing his sprint that looks like a slow, lumbering walk – all the more ridiculous. But Vernon’s dead serious about his work, and, as he trains, he explains the role of the supernatural killer.

Slashers aren’t actually the evil bastards everyone makes them out to be. While pointing out the importance of phallic and yonic imagery to his work, Vernon explains that they don’t do what they do simply to take vengeance against nubile youths for their active sex lives. Rather, killers like him provide a service to society by keeping us afraid, by providing a counterbalance to all that is good in the world. Without the contrast provided by him and his ilk, “good” would have no meaning.

Of course, the young Vernon’s a little different from his forbears. He’s not content just to kill; he wants to be a star.

Midway through the film, the handheld documentary-style cameras are disposed of and the film becomes more of a straight-up slasher pic, where the seeds planted in the film’s first half come to fruition in surprising – yet retrospectively inevitable – ways. It’s a risky move, and one that could’ve been exceedingly awkward, but the filmmakers set up the accompanying plot twist so well that it’s hard to notice that this is essentially two films stitched together into one.

The horror lampoon genre seemed played out four years ago, but writer/director Scott Glosserman’s smart script and intimate knowledge of horror convention combines with the small cast’s tongue-in-cheek performances to save the day. With the recent rise of the übergore torture movies hell-bent on pushing their obscenity to laughable levels (did you hear “Hostel 2” is coming out?), it’s nice to see a horror movie that’s actually funny when it’s trying to be.