It would be easy to bury what is great about Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon in over analysis. I think hyperventilating fans of the film might be doing it a disservice when they praise it too highly. The film is clever, but no more clever than the first Scream flick was. The film gets some great mileage out of the faux-documentary feel, but doesn't use it to explore the viewer-media relationship the way the considerably grimmer Man Bites Dog did. It scores some zingers off the eminently ludic slasher genre; but isn't making fun of slasher flicks somewhat like making fun of the slow kid? Even the core franchises of the genre have long since lapsed into self-parody.
Behind the Mask is not particularly scary, is passably funny, is smart without being brilliant, and deconstructs a genre that, for all the quick wit of the film, has long since been subverted, dissected, and reinvented.
There. Now that we've got that out of the way, let me tell you why BtM is absolutely fantastic: BtM is a pitch perfect pop culture mediation on fandom. Specifically, it is a love letter to the pleasures of that curious sort of fandom that turns fictional sinister mass-murdering psychos into sub-cultural mascots, rates cinematic bloodbaths on the criteria of the creativity of its carnage, and can earnest discuss who might beat who in a fight: Leatherface or Michael Meyers?
For those who haven't seen it - BtM involves a charismatic and energetic young would-be slasher, the titular hero of the pic, and the film crew who follows him around the small Maryland town of Glen Echo as he prepares for his debut mass-murder. The film crew watches him select his victims, build a tantalizing "back story," run through a rigorous physical fitness routine, and generally do what an aggressively proactive movie maniac must do to make sure his opening slaughter is worthy of the name "atrocity."
Along the way we meet Leslie's "Ahab," an obsessive shrink played by Robert Englund, doing his best Donald Pleasence circa Halloween impersonation, and a truly wonderful Scott Wilson (who has been playing fascinating heavies since 1967) as Leslie's murderous mentor, a retired slasher who wants to give young bucks like Leslie the wisdom of his years spilling the blood of sorority sisters and the like.
It all builds up to a suitably tense final showdown in an abandoned house next to a beautifully atmospheric orchard.
One of the first things genre fans might notice is that, as far as slashers go, BtM isn't interested in going for the jugular. The body count is, by contemporary standards, modest and the film's approach to blood-letting is downright timid, even by the now tame standards of the classic slashers of the '70s and '80s. Instead, BtM trades in horrorific gore for that curious hallmark of the slasher flick: the predicable scare. That's really where the catharsis of slasher flicks is. We know exactly what we're getting into and we want that old familiar dance. And, when it comes to the old familiar dance, director Scott Glosserman and Nathan Baesel, who is perfect as the awkwardly cute then extremely creepy Vernon, are a regular Astaire and Rodgers. The joy of the film is not in the details of the kills or in the endless Pollock-ish splatter. The film shines in the way it fulfils the now classic formula of the slasher film: it begins with us rooting for the killer, then switchs our allegiances to the final girl. There's nothing surprising in this. It is a staple of every slasher flick. But there is a pleasure in seeing it done so knowingly and so well. It is like getting a perfect cheeseburger. Sure, we're not talking avocat et oeufs à la mousse de crabe; but isn't a really great burger something noteworthy in its own right.
A special mention should Jason Presant, the cinematographer. Despite a deliberately low-fi vibe, as suits the mockumentary conceit of the flick, Presant's expressive camera work manages to capture some genuinely beautiful moments, and, surprisingly for the lenser of a slasher flick, he has a real feel for the composition of pastoral charm. His work is better than it needs to be and his low-gloss but careful touch helps the movie avoid the bloated Hollywood slickness of Scream and the jagged, muddy awkwardness of most low budget productions.
BtM is a great movie in the way a song like the Beach Boy's I Get Around is a classic tune. By taking a perfectionist's approach to something meant to be a disposable pop confection, it elevates the final result. For such a special film, I think we need to break out the ol' German Cities Whose Names Begin with the Letter "O" Film Rating System. I'm giving Behind the Mask a strong Oberhausen. No he didn't! Yes, he did! I said it, and I stand by it: Oberhausen.