To Chekhov’s axiom that a gun introduced in an early scene will surely make an appearance in the last, the appealingly lowbrow new thriller “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” has an amendment: If you introduce a rusty, on-the-outs apple juicer in an early scene, it’s going to mean bad news for someone later.
And so it does. Happily the film, released by the sleepy genre distributor Anchor Bay, is mostly welcome news for fans of “Scream” and other self-conscious horror movies that want to tell us everything that’s going to happen and then somehow make it surprising when it actually does. “Behind the Mask” can’t quite pull of that trick, but it provides a modest good time in pursuit of it.
The movie’s gimmick is familiar: It opens with a documentary film crew making the rounds through the classic haunts of horror films past, from Elm Street to Haddonfield, waxing inane about the invincible monsters of the most famous American horror franchises. Soon the film goes a little “Blair Witch” and gets to follow the film crew in their search for the next great killer, apparently a skinny 20-something named Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel). Our heroine, Taylor (Angela Goethals), is the host and director of the documentary, following bemusedly as Leslie acts out his plan to stalk a young virgin girl because of some fuzzy familial connection and ultimately to the abandoned old house where the final confrontation will take place.
“Behind the Mask” is lighthearted and gregarious in these early scenes, a little too much so. We all know the classic tropes of horror pictures – the survivor girl, the kids who go upstairs and stay, the early hints of the Past We Do Not Know – and the film seems at first to think listing them off is enough to pass as parody. But as the plot progresses, the dry, incidental touches deliver the punch line: Leslie works out, or “doing cardio” as he says, because there’s nothing worse than a victim who can outrun you. His parental figures, a retired slasher and the woman who got away, fancy his vocation as something of an extreme sport: Obviously they wish he had gone with a “less dangerous” profession, they tell us, but they respect his calling.
The film goes on like that for some time before it drops its mockumentary aspects abruptly and the predestined outcome begins to go awry – that is for anyone who hasn’t seen a horror movie. The problem with “Behind the Mask,” and it’s the same problem with “Scream,” is that the movie spends its first two-thirds molding into a dissertation of every phallic and vulvic symbol of the genre before resigning itself in the final act to a transparent run-through of the same conventions it just hung out to dry. That’s the joke, I guess, but like with “Scream,” there’s a certain dissatisfaction in watching a movie that has so much fun with its in-premise at first only to let it go on autopilot in the end.
Despite this there’s still something to be said for seeing the movie, which I wouldn’t discourage, especially a film this unabashedly low budget in a theater like the State (side note: “Grindhouse” will open there, yes?). There’s characters called things like “Stoned Guy” and “Slightly More Stoned Guy,” and at times the film approaches a subtlety in its satire that goes beyond knowing the last names of every neighbor in “Halloween.” Even Robert Englund shows up as the resident Dr. Loomis. If the story in “Behind the Mask” never really pays off, it’s perhaps forgivable for the obvious zeal the filmmakers and their cast put into pilfering this old, downtrodden genre for the very little it’s still worth.
Behind the Mask
At the State Theater
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars