Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Psycho killer. Qu'est-ce que c'est?

There's a legend around Glen Echo, Maryland of a boy named Leslie Vernon. Born out of a rape committed by a drifter, he was abused by his mother and her husband, mercilessly forced to work their farm by himself, by hand and scythe. Eventually, the boy snapped and murdered his tormentors. But the townspeople did not sympathize with his plight, instead they saw him as a child possessed by evil, so they took him from his home and marched him over the edge of a waterfall.

Nearly twenty years later, Leslie has returned to Glen Echo with the intention of becoming a slasher. In the world of this film, every slasher movie was actually a real life event. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky, they're all real. Leslie sees himself as their heir apparent.

A trio of grad students got word of Leslie's plan and have gotten him to agree to let them shoot a documentary about him and his slasher debut. Leslie pulls back the curtain on slasherdom for the crew, which is headed by the ambitious Taylor Gentry. He reveals all - the amount of cardio a killer has to do to keep up with their running targets while they have to keep up the illusion of being calm and deliberate, that sleight of hand is involved, escape tactics planned, that they use sensory deprivation tanks in their downtime to learn how to control their bodily functions so they can appear to be dead if the need arises, how locations can be rigged to the slasher's advantage. He describes the thought process that goes into picking just the right "survivor girl" (or final girl), a virgin with a diverse group of friends, a good supporting cast for him to pick off around her. He even shows how to pull off jump scares.

On the twentieth anniversary of Leslie Vernon going over the waterfall, he plans to orchestrate a situation that will have his chosen survivor girl and her friends spending the night in the long abandoned farmhouse that was his childhood home, where he will kill them one-by-one. The slasher philosophy here is that they're doing a service to civilization. They're in the business of fear, every culture needs its monsters and stories of good versus evil. But as showtime nears, Taylor grows increasingly uneasy. She's dedicated to her documentary, but can she really let this happen?

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a fantastic debut film for director Scott Glosserman, who also co-wrote the script with David J. Stieve. It's a very entertaining and smart post-modern take on the slasher subgenre, made by people who are obviously fans of the slashers that came before. It's full of Easter egg nods to the classics; at the beginning Taylor talks about Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers, and her narration plays over shots filmed at the locations where the first Friday the 13th and Halloween movies were made, and of four-time Jason Kane Hodder entering 1428 Elm Street.

Most of the movie plays as a mockumentary, shot with handheld DV cameras by the guys on Taylor's crew, but at times it will switch to the style of a traditionally shot horror movie, footage not shot by one of the characters - Super 16mm film, cranes, etc. This happens in the scenes where we see Leslie perform his slasherly duties, or when he describes how he expects things to go. The third act, when the farmhouse slash-a-thon kicks in, is presented entirely in traditional style.

The cast is great. Leslie Vernon was actor Nathan Baesel's introductory feature film role and he is awesome in it. Leslie is a pretty nice, likeable guy when he's not on the clock. Zelda Rubinstein, best known from the Poltergeist series, appears as a librarian, Freddy himself Robert Englund plays Doc Halloran, Leslie's own Dr. Loomis-esque "Ahab". Scott Wilson, who has gained attention recently for his work on The Walking Dead TV series, steals some scenes as Leslie's retired slasher mentor, who applauds the '80s slashers for raising their craft to artform, while looking down on the one hit wonders who give slashers a bad name, those guys who couldn't make it to a sequel.

From my perspective, the 1993 TV series Phenom was one of the biggest and most memorable shows of the early '90s. Looking it up twenty years later, I was surprised to see that it had only lasted one season. The main reason why it had such an impact on me is because I thought its teenage star, Angela Goethals, was really cute. (She's older than me, so it was fine for me to crush on her.) I again thought she was really cute when she had a small role in 1996's Jerry Maguire. So a decade later, I was very glad when Goethals won the role of Taylor Gentry in this film and entered my beloved slasher subgenre.

Behind the Mask got a limited theatrical release in March of 2007, and I was one of the lucky apparent few who got to see it on the big screen. It was playing at a theatre in Cleveland, where I would just happen to be at the right time to catch it. This was the only time I ever went to that theatre, there was a little trouble finding the place, some uncooperative traffic, and it must've started right on time, because when I arrived in the auditorium the movie had already been playing for thirteen minutes. But I was on a schedule that day and had already bought my tickets online, so I still attended that screening, and thankfully my late arrival didn't hinder my enjoyment. When the movie ended, I went over to the Spring 2007 Cinema Wasteland.

Now that Leslie Vernon has risen, there's been talk over the years of the possibility of a sequel being made. Attempts have been made to raise funding, but I'm not sure what its status is at this point aside from the fact that the actors and filmmakers remain determined to make it happen. Regardless of whether or not Leslie Vernon returns or is a one hit wonder, Behind the Mask is definitely one to watch if you're into slasher flicks. Its existence pretty much put the kibosh on one of my own ideas, but I admire the film too much to be bothered about that.

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