Behind the Mask (United States, 2006)

February 07, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Behind the Mask Poster

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon may be the best horror spoof no one has ever seen. Or at least, that was the case when Starz/Anchor Bay dumped the film into a small number of theaters during mid-March 2007 with little publicity and no advance screenings. That kind of release strategy screams "dog!" Perhaps the distributors didn't realize what they had - a smart, witty homage/parody of the slasher genre. Or maybe they knew exactly what Behind the Mask was and, recognizing the mainstream horror audience preference for mindless, repetitive gore, they shied away from promoting Behind the Mask, which offers considerably more. There are, for example, tangible payoffs for those with a sense of humor and an understanding of the genre's often-cheesy conventions. Like Scream, Behind the Mask isn't afraid to openly (and with tongue planted in cheek) reference classics of the past as templates for the present.

Behind the Mask may not have attracted much attention during its mishandled theatrical run, but it entered the uncertain realm of "cult offerings" during its DVD life, where it found a solid, if not overwhelming fan base. Home video reaction has been positive enough to encourage producer/co-writer/director Scott Glosserman to announce a sequel, supposedly to be released in 2012. Whether or not this comes to fruition, it's a testimony to the power of the secondary market as a way for overlooked theatrical productions to find new life.

Behind the Mask sits upon an intriguing foundation. In this world, the famous motion picture serial killers are real and their storied killing sprees happened. Jason, Freddy, and Michael aren't movie villains; they're names ripped from the headlines. Camp Crystal Lake, Haddonfield (Illinois), and Elm Street are real places. Now, with the help of a hired documentary crew to capture the highlights of his murderous activities, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) is determined to carve his name alongside Voorhees, Kruger, and Myers in the Killers' Hall of Fame. Appropriating his name from a local legend about a victim of mob justice, Leslie scripts his rampage in detail, down to the means by which all the fake scares will be executed. His planning fascinates the three-person filmmaking crew, narrator/director Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and her assistants Doug (Ben Pace) and Todd (Britain Spellings), to the point where they become willing accomplices - at least until the bloodshed starts and they have stirrings of conscience. Also involved in the action are a variety of disposable college-age people (on hand primarily to increase the body count), a "survivor girl" (a virgin with the best chance to defeat the killer), and an "Ahab" (a Sam Loomis-type, played by Robert Englund).

The first half of Behind the Mask is breezy fun, with Glosserman repeatedly landing jabs to the horror/slasher genre. The screenplay is replete with references to Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween. Kane Hodder, the actor most closely associated with playing Jason, has a cameo on Elm Street. A bar referenced in Halloween (on a match book) shows up here. Three girls jumping rope in the background is a nod to Wes Craven's most lasting contribution to the genre. There are other in-jokes for the eagle-eyed aficionado to note. The end credits roll to the tune of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," which is as appropriate to Behind the Mask as "Don't Fear the Reaper" was to Halloween.

The film loses some of its energy and momentum during its final 30 minutes but, considering the high level at which it operates for its first hour, that's understandable. Eventually, with the planning completed, the gratuitous boob scene dispensed with, and the "shock" death provided, Behind the Mask transitions from straightforward parody to satire-tinged homage. By design, it becomes a generic slasher film. However, even though we understand what Glosserman is doing by taking this route, such knowledge doesn't smooth over the rough edges. The film's last act is repetitive and drags a little, but those are some of the few criticisms that can be leveled against an otherwise meticulously crafted story.

The twin leads of Nathan Baesel and Angela Goethals come to the film with similar resumes - not a lot of motion picture experience but familiarity with TV acting. Both are polished enough to be convincing, which may be the best one could expect. Glosserman employs the services of veteran character actor Scott Wilson in the key role of Eugene, an old-time serial killer (now retired) who shows Leslie the tricks of the trade and provides tips and insider information to Taylor for use in her documentary. Another familiar face is Zelda Rubinstein, whose horror pedigree is rooted in the Poltergeist movie series; this was her final film appearance. Finally, Glosserman's biggest casting coup is to persuade none other than Freddy Kruger, Robert Englund, to appear in the Donald Pleasance-inspired role of the "Ahab" - a psychiatrist who learns of Leslie's plan and seeks to stop it with a display of righteous wrath. Understandably, Englund looks nothing like Freddy but bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Loomis.

There aren't many horror "hidden gems" out there. The best films of the genre are well-known and the less-recognizable titles are overlooked for good reason. No motion picture category can boast more low-budget schlock. Behind the Mask, however, is the exception: a horror movie made by a man with a passion and intelligence to equal those for whom the film has been crafted. This production is not for those who crave gore and cheap scares. And, since it is unapologetically a slasher movie that demands a level of familiarity from its viewers, it's unlikely to find favor with those who don't have a soft spot for the genre. I suspect most die-hard horror fans reading this have already seen Behind the Mask. Those who haven't are strongly recommended to rent it. It provides a fresh, chilling breeze through the stale air of the crypt that has become multiplex horror.

Behind the Mask (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1