Back in 1996 Wes Craven kickstarted the teen slasher genre all over again with a Kevin Williamson script that analyzed the conventions of slasher movies like Halloween and built a movie around two killers who knew the conventions and their victims who analyzed the conventions in self-defense.
In a way Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon plays with some of the ideas of Scream but it is a far more rigorous examination of the conventions of horror movies. Where Scream endowed its iconic scream figure with most of the same superhuman abilities as Jason or Freddie and limited the explanations to having two people portray one killer, Behind the Mask The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes into detail showcasing the methodology of the slasher. Leslie Vernon or Leslie Mancuso does a regular kickboxing workout, has a house filled with texts like Grey’s Anatomy (the medical text not the ABC TV show) and studies techniques in detail breaking down each attack to something that may seem like random brutal violence but is in fact a carefully prearranged killing campaign that takes months to achieve with every detail nailed down. No pun intended.
Where Scream only toward the end showed the masks coming off and the real killers revealed, Behind the Mask The Rise of Leslie Vernon begins with the mask off and from there has to proceed to the seemingly impossible task of actually making Leslie Vernon terrifying with the mask on. And making Leslie Vernon genuinely terrifying or even scary seems all but impossible from the start as Leslie bounces around in response to the visit of grad student and aspiring reporter Taylor Gentry who is trying her best not to be Diane Sawyer.
The Leslie Vernon who first greets us is filled with dorky enthusiasm, awkward and a little strange, but no more so than any other hobbyist who gets a chance to show off his interests and the hobby that fills his life. Except Leslie Vernon’s hobby is murder. He supposedly has not done it yet but he soon will. As a movie monster Leslie Vernon is a let down but real life monsters often are Leslie Vernon’s, amiable friendly people who might seem a little off putting sometimes who have a dark side just under the surface.
Leslie Vernon’s enthusiasm is not just a hobby but his preparation to become a slasher killer himself. He demonstrates in excruciating detail his training and preparation course, including misdirection and all the usual tricks of the horror movie trade, like distracting Kelly with a shadow and then using a fishing line tied to a brick to pull the door back to the restaurant kitchen shut. Kelly is of course the “Survivor Girl”, the virgin who in the horror movie tradition stays pure and gathers the spirit and strength to fight off the slasher and survive to the next sequel.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon takes place in a world where all the slasher movies are real, where Freddie and Jason exist or existed and Leslie Vernon makes their world real by breaking down their methodology step by step. How do the slashers manage to stalk their victims so perfectly and appear to be walking while their victims are running. The answer involves timing and a lot of cardio. How do they manage to know where everyone is in the house all the time. The answer involves being outside a lot and carefully studying and preparing a building plan that turns every space into a controlled maze with all the escapes taken out, including nailing shut the windows, cutting tree branches and disabling cars ahead of time, not to mention putting dead batteries in flashlights.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon begins as a documentary and ends in something much darker as everything that Leslie Vernon has been preparing for begins to happen and the documentary becomes a horror movie. It’s a tricky transition and Taylor Gentry is the key to pulling it off. Her transition from a shallow wannabe reporter who giggles nervously around Leslie Vernon’s mentor Eugene, an elderly retired killer, underpins the movie because in the end it is Taylor who is the axis around which the second half of the movie turns.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon begins as an uneasy comedy as Leslie Vernon eagerly shows off his technique and makes clumsy quips on camera while stalking his victims. Evenings with Eugene and his wife Jamie are even more unnerving as the happy couple talk airily about killing sprees, Ahabs, Survivor Girls and embodying evil. At the point that the killings begin, the comedy makes way for horror but horror on another timeline. Leslie Mancuzo, a perhaps disturbed Reno patient, has Vernon Leslie carry out all the usual Jason and Michael routines, from stalking his victims to appearing in just the right place and killing, killing and killing some more. But behind it all is a plan and a mind capable of nailing down everyone’s actions in the house and as Taylor Gentry rushes through the situation trying to figure out a way to beat his plan, as the virgin proves not to be a virgin, the Survivor Girl dies and everything comes apart, she realizes that Leslie Vernon planned all of this out all along from the beginning right down to the end until every action she takes down to his supposed death is the one he wanted to come about.
The real horror of Behind the Mask The Rise of Leslie Vernon is not in the quick killings. It is in the planning and that is how Behind the Mask The Rise of Leslie Vernon makes horror out of breaking the fourth wall and produces the most nightmarish fake horror documentary since The Blair Witch Project. The true terror is not in the murders. It is in the control that terror and monsters have over us. By revealing Leslie Vernon as not a supernatural monster but a monster born out of a human mind plotting every course of action and reducing his victims to lab rats in a maze in the service of his own needs, a monster far more horrific than any supernatural unkillable ghoul has been revealed. A human monster.