Horror is the sister genre of grimdark. Some have suggested that fantasy and science fiction become grimdark when combined with horror. The world of horror invokes most of the feelings of nihilism, dread, and inhumanity that make the genre distinct from traditional escapist fiction. The two genres are very distinct with grimdark having a much more distinctive tone, however. The big thing lacking from most horror found in grimdark is the moral relativism and ambiguity. In most horror there are innocent victims and monsters. In most grimdark, the heroes themselves are compromised. One movie that straddles the line is, unusually, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a comedy horror film that deconstructs the concept of the movie slasher.
The concept of Behind the Mast: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is that a group of grad students are working on their thesis with the premise of, “how do slashers do what they do?” In this movie, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers are all real serial killers who have terrorized the United States. While they are rumored to be supernatural, it’s speculated they may just be people using special effects. The grad students then get invited to learn the “secrets” of slashers by an affable man named Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) who claims to be a local urban legend.
The movie’s central conceit is the grad students don’t buy for a second that Leslie Vernon is dangerous. He looks and acts a bit like you’d expect Jim Carey to in real-life. He’s pleasant, charming, and a little goofy. Having come here expecting someone much more sinister, they swiftly decide just to go along with his detailed explanations of how to plan a spree murder while treating it more like he’s teaching them how to flip a house. Leslie explains everything from how to lure a bunch of victims to an isolated location, rig blackouts, disable cars, stalk people while not looking you’re running, and other “tricks of the trade.”
The heart of the movie is the idea that your typical stock slasher plot of beautiful people getting trapped and murdered by a deranged serial killer is the result of careful planning rather than bad writing. Leslie Vernon is a wonderful anti-hero in that he uses his moderate knowledge of special effects, theatricality, and planning to become the slasher movie equivalent of Batman. He doesn’t have any superpowers and is an imposter but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. Indeed, he is more dangerous because even those people he tells he’s going to go on a killing spree like the documentary crew are lured into a false sense of security by his charisma.
Two-thirds of the movie is nothing more than Leslie Vernon’s preparation for his killing spree and how much effort he puts into it. An interesting part of the movie is the apathetic and unconcerned tone of the grad students. Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and the others don’t believe Leslie is dangerous but the fact that they ignore all the signs he is as well as were planning to meet with an “actual” serial killer shows they put their careers ahead of people’s safety. Even when they’re confronted by a Doctor Loomis-esque psychologist (played none other than Robert Englund) who tries to warn them of how dangerous Leslie Vernon is, they shrug him off because he’s spoiling their fun.
The final third of the film is a more traditional slasher movie, essentially presenting the “best parts” of a typical one. Having had all the preparations explained to us, it’s a wonderful collection of grizzly deaths and shocking twists. One of these twists is one that was obvious in retrospect and makes the movie significantly more sinister on a second watch. The ending of the movie also includes the awesome song “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. I give any movie props when they have classic rock songs like that as their theme.
The dark and nihilistic feel of the movie is quite interesting. Leslie Vernon’s craves meaning in his life and wishes to create a conflict of good vs. evil by embodying the evil while trying to force his “Survivor Girl” to be his good. It’s a high concept that I really enjoyed. Not only does it provide an explanation for how a “normal” person could pull off most of the tricks of a slasher, but it goes into the psychology of a person who would want to stalk and kill a bunch of people but give them a decent chance of fighting back. It makes sense in this world at least.
The humor in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a delightfully black one as Leslie Vernon’s sardonic, affable nature contrasts with his plans for a killing spree. There are hundreds of in-jokes ranging from the huge (like Robert Englund’s appearance) to the blink-and-miss-it like Vernon’s turtle being named after characters from Pet Semetary. I got a lot of laughs out of the fact that one of the characters is a reference to Black Christmas and the Toolbox Murders, two movies you don’t normally see cited in this kind of story. As Friday the 13th‘s gravedigger would say, “Some folk have a very strange idea of entertainment.”
The movie is fairly low budget with much of it being treated as documentary “filmed footage” that is lower quality than the actual “live” footage of our characters interacting. There’s not much in the way of action sequences either or gory special effects. This was made on a show-string budget but that adds a weird sense of realism to the whole thing. There’s precious little gore or nudity so it’s the kind of slasher film that you can watch with the whole family (of adults).
In conclusion, this is a fantastic movie and the more you like slasher movies the more you’ll enjoy this film. It’s a solid and underrated movie available on Amazon Prime, BluRay, and Shudder. It was supposed to have a sequel but due to financing issues, it seems like it will be a one and done special. That’s fine by me as it’s a pretty awesome story by itself. I don’t think there’s anywhere they could go in the story that wasn’t already covered. If you like Scream or other deconstructive parodies that still work as an example of the genre then this is for you.
Buy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon