For better or worse, Scream changed the slasher film. Wes Craven expertly vivisected the veneer of the subgenre, allowing even horror dilettantes to feel like they were insiders. The conceit of the film was that both killer and victim had seen staples like Halloween, so they could attempt to manipulate genre tropes to their advantage, turning the movie into something like full-contact Trivial Pursuit. With the exception of the “Sin Factor” (sex and drugs get you killed), Scream ignored the juicier elements of slasher subtext, leaving enough fertile ground for a filmmaker with enough gumption, elbow grease and a sharp hand scythe, to plow. In stepped Scott Glosserman with his horror/comedy mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
In the world of Behind the Mask, supernatural serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are real, although exactly how supernatural they are remains intentionally vague. Are they really unkillable zombies or just guys in excellent shape wearing masks and Kevlar? A team of grad students, led by future journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) wants to find out by shooting a documentary on aspiring supernatural killer Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel). He agrees to show them what it takes to turn a bunch of horny teenagers into chum (hint, it involves cardio), but what Leslie gains from the arrangement is mysterious at first. Periodically, the film slips into the hypothetical slasher film of which Leslie is the villain. In these, the film’s weakest moments, it becomes more of a traditional slasher. But because we have seen what’s behind the mask, the device normally used to both hide the killer’s identity and keep the audience from identifying with him, Behind the Mask can never truly be a normal horror film.
Leslie initially appears as a cheerfully menacing loner, playfully showing the crew behind the curtain, and what is revealed is strangely mundane. Becoming a supernatural killer has some of the same elements as becoming Batman.
First, there’s studying, including human anatomy and stage magic, followed by obsessive exercise and martial arts training. Then there’s the tricks and gadgets that get him through his night of slaughter: smearing his face with a mixture of Preparation H and flame retardant, stealing sparkplugs, nailing windows shut and sabotaging possible weapons. While explaining a forged article, he deadpans: “A lot of what we do is CGI.”
Though his methods are human, his legend has the evocative Southern Gothic tone of ancient curses and monstrous revenge. The child of rape, Leslie’s mother and stepfather abused him horribly, forcing him to sleep in the symbolically important cider room. Eventually, Leslie rebelled and killed them, hacking his stepfather up with a hand scythe and lynching his mother in the apple orchard. When the town discovered the crime, an angry mob threw him over a waterfall into an icy river. As Zelda Rubenstein explains in her malfunctioning babydoll voice: “That cold, bodies don’t come back up. Turtles picked his bones clean.” On the twentieth anniversary of his death, Leslie has returned to exact vengeance on the community. As the film matures, it is revealed that Leslie is not what he claims to be and has merely glommed onto the legend of Leslie Vernon as part of his bid to join the ranks of “Jay, Fred and Mike.”
What separates Behind the Mask from Scream, other than the mockumentary format, is that Leslie and Taylor have experienced the events of Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween not as films, but as urban legends. Leslie is aware of the symbolism inherent in urban legends as well as the power contained within and spends a good chunk of his screentime offering dryly hilarious deconstructions of the business. At times, his fixation on symbolism and codes of ethics seems deranged. But hey, he’s trying to be a supernatural serial killer. They’re not supposed to be well adjusted.
Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film doesn’t exist in Behind the Mask, but the screenwriters have obviously read it. Clover interprets the slasher film as a conflict of androgynes: a feminized male killer going after a tomboyish girl who must masculinize herself to win. Clover points out that in many cases, androgynous names are used to identify what she christened the Final Girl (or Survivor Girl in Leslie’s terms), and in knowing this, guessing the film’s final twist is easy.
Leslie’s understanding of the symbolism of his surroundings will affect how he can fight. He explains it as a code of ethics. For example, a victim that hides in a closet is off limits, since the closet represents the womb, and inside the womb, we are innocent. Ditto the tool shed, but that gets more complex. Leslie wants his Survivor Girl to enter the tool shed, to “reach for a big, long, hard weapon.” And just in case there’s any confusion, he helpfully clarifies: “She’s empowering herself. With Cock.” Specifically, Leslie’s cock. Carol Clover would be so proud.
This idea is at the crux of why Leslie does what he does. Part of it is the struggle between good and evil and the idea that in order that good can exist, evil must. But it goes beyond that. In fact, Leslie posits that evil gives birth to good, from the womb of the tool shed, to the orchard Leslie equates to a birth canal, on the way to the final showdown in the cider room. He points to the cider press, where the apple – the symbol of knowledge, loss of innocence and feminine power – is crushed to juice, as the weapon that will finish the battle between killer and Survivor Girl.
Leslie wants his Survivor Girl to be reborn as a “woman hell bent on revenge,” because he loves her. It is the paradox of empowerment through attempted murder. Either she will die or she will become something much more important, and a symbol of all that is pure and good to stand in contrast to his “grim incarnation of unrelenting evil.” But that’s not the end. Leslie does evil to birth good, but in giving his legend power, he harnesses some of that for himself. Once the legend is immortal, so is he, in the literal sense. It’s very Jungian, which is a nice break from the normal Freudian analysis of all this. Even I need a break from typing “cock” over and over again.
What might be lost in all this pompous analysis is that Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is funny as hell. But it’s the kind of funny that makes you think. Sort of like when a respected scientist poops himself.