Behind the Mask: Leslie Vernon’s Rise 15 Years Later
Filmmakers are familiar with the idea of a serial killer being a horror villain. The villain is often a recreation from an urban legend. They can sometimes seem to be superhumanly strong and able to teleport to find their victims. Although these recurring elements are sometimes criticized as a crutch for filmmakers, their reliability makes it impossible for creators not to use them. Scott Glosserman, a filmmaker, was inspired in 2006 to look deeper into these tropes in real life and create Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon.
This universe treats horror films like John Carpenter’s Halloween, Wes Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th as historical events that took place in the real world. Our main protagonist Taylor shows footage from Camp Crystal Lake, while naming Freddy Voorhees. He refers to “dying in your dreams” and mentions Michael Myers as he shows Haddonfield’s empty streets on Halloween Night. This is almost like a journalist following the footsteps of famous killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein.
This journalistic investigation is actually the inspiration for the movie’s style and format. It is depicted as a mockumentary throughout the movie. The journalist Taylor is interviewing Leslie Vernon, who claims to be an urban legend from Glen Echo. Vernon claims to have been possessed by his father as a child, and he killed his parents. The townspeople then attacked him in vengeance and he is now believed to be haunting the Vernon farmhouse, and the nearby apple orchard. Vernon is willing to talk about his preparations for the murder spree and how he will cope with the consequences.
Glosserman, in a similar vein to The Cabin In The Woods has Vernon break down the possible scenarios. It can be as simple as burying himself alive in order to slow down his heart rate and intensifying cardio to be able track down victims while appearing to teleport. Vernon’s detailed breakdown of how he prepared the farmhouse is what helps to show the meticulous planning that went into his murders.
This could include sealing off exits and tampering or rigging potential weapons victims might use to defend themselves, as well as rigging electricity failure. Or mapping all escape routes. These are just a few examples of legitimate reasons why a serial killer may seem unstoppable. A manipulative, dangerously trained psychopath is responsible for what appears to be a supernatural monster.
Although this deconstruction of horror movies and serial killers could be antagonizing, Nathan Baessel is a master in his role. His charisma makes him fascinating and intoxicating to watch. Despite the charismatic portrayal that draws you in, there is always an unsettling energy that keeps you on edge. The viewer is left to wonder if Vernon is a stalker-esque fan or an aspiring killer capable of great violence. Baessel, who is at times funny and kooky and at other times terrifying, is the movie’s MVP. He balances the humor of the mockumentary with the horror iconography of his third act killer.
The third act features an intentional shift in mise-en-scene. This is representative of an important character beat and taps into journalistic integrity. The film’s first third is a team of Taylor, Todd, and Doug engaging with Leslie and Eugene in friendly interactions. Taylor even helps Leslie in a stalker moment, to terrorize Leslie’s planned “survivor girl” (his version the well-known trope of the “final girl”)).
Vernon instigates the murders and Taylor, Todd, and Doug are horrified. Vernon suggests they leave. Our heroes are faced with a dilemma: do they leave Vernon’s murder investigation unfinished and allow Vernon to carry it out? Or try to save the intended victims and put their lives at risk?
Our protagonists save the day and end the investigation. This allows the mise-en scene to change from a grainy documentary style to a more polished, cleaner style. Vernon, now depicted in the same manner as classic villains like the aforementioned Voorhees or Myers, is devoid of any humanity and is now a tour-de-force of murder.
Although some may not like this change, it is creative and makes sense. This is especially true when Leslie reveals that Taylor, not Kelly, is his real target for his “survivor girl”. This revelation brings the film to a new light. It gives Taylor’s actions new resonance and connotation. Taylor is uncomfortable with sexual acts and refuses alcohol.
Vernon, as he goes through his plan for the murder-night, begins to talk about the Freudian aspects and the phallic natures of weapons that the heroine uses. Vernon explains that he believes that when she grabs a weapon it is a form of empowerment. He calls it “empowering herself with chicken”.
Vernon goes on to add more examples. For example, Vernon suggests that hiding in a closet is a place of hiding that is sacred. It can be read as a simple summary, which can make Vernon seem arrogant or self-indulgent. The viewer can interpret it in a subversive way.
The Mask’s greatest flaw is probably the time it was released. It was caught between Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. Both of these films take the analysis of tropes to a higher degree than The Mask. The film is similar to Belgian horror classic Man Bites Dog which featured a serial killer and a documentary crew. Behind The Mask was released at a time when most horror films had been remakes (The Omen and The Hills Have Eyes, When A Stranger Calls), sequels (“Saw III”, Final Destination III), or torture porn (“Hostel”).
Despite the positive reviews, it was only years later that the film began to be appreciated. It’s now a regular feature on horror streaming website Shudder. This is the perfect time for people to see this underappreciated gem. If you are like me, you can rewatch it.