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Before getting to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, an underground horror flick generating mad Internet buzz and with a marquee slot Saturday at Screamfest LA 2006, consider the actor playing the psychotic wannabe serial killer, Vernon.
His name is Nathan Baesel. The Buena Park High School and Fullerton College product spent four years at the prestigious Juilliard School, graduating in 2002 with nothing but praise and promise. He's had his share of successes: big roles in a handful of South Coast Repertory plays, a recurring role on the ABC series Invasion.But regional theater, while paying well, is too sporadic for a man with a wife and 3-year-old son at home. And TV, while paying very well, is just as ephemeral: Invasionwas canceled after its final episode earlier this year.
So, four years after graduating from one of the world's most hallowed performance academies, Baesel drives a 1990 Nissan pickup, lives in a small apartment in a crowded block of east Fullerton, and, in order to supplement his income, is teaching acting lessons at a small theater in Fullerton.
"Did I think my career would be in a different place by now?" Baesel repeats. "Sure I did. I mean, I'm still schlepping from audition to audition."
But it appears Baesel's road to stardom—or at least self-sufficiency as an actor—is paved with gore and guts. His turn as the lead in Behind the Maskis the talk of the underground horror circuit, an enthusiastically verbose community of Internet-savvy horror geeks and film buffs who aren't shy about touting his performance or this film.
Jeremy Knox, one of the main writers for filmthreat.com, among the largest online communities of independent and underground film enthusiasts, brands Behind the Maska "masterpiece . . . the best horror movie to come by in years and the best slasher movie since . . . Nightmare on Elm Street."
The response at film festivals across the world—and at a private screening last weekend at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton—has been just as enthusiastic, with audiences embracing a film that both satirizes and serves the genre, blending Waiting for Guffman-like mockumentary and grisly visuals into an eminently entertaining and thought-provoking amalgam of horror and homage. It both deconstructs and slices open the slasher genre, exposing its archetypes and pretenses while also serving as a harrowing ride through the psychotic psychology of a character who yearns to walk with the Kruegers, Myerses and Voorheeses of the world. Along the way, it ponders why these deranged figures are such icons.
The answer is modern monster tales—particularly the slasher-as-archetypal-dark-angel-of-the soul pioneered by Psycho, invigorated by The Texas Chainsaw Massacreand canonized by the Halloween/Friday the 13th/A Nightmare on Elm Streetunholy trifecta—serve the same purpose as ancient myths of demonic possession, pitch-fork-carrying devils and other creatures of the dark night: they force the less murderous and evil among us to confront, accept and overcome those baser impulses.
But rarely has evil incarnate worn such a charming, likable face as that of Baesel's Leslie Vernon. Whether the film, slated for limited release in early January, catches on with the mainstream or not, his performance is stunning. He manages to not only make a total psychotic believable, but he also makes him downright endearing. Whether he's revealing tricks of the slasher trade (Grey's Anatomy is a must-read manual) or glowing with pride at each small victory he thinks will lead to psycho canonization (spooking a young virgin, discovering an Ahab determined to thwart his perverse schemes), there is an infectious enthusiasm to Baesel's portrayal that elevates Behind the Maskabove self-reflective Screamor campy, tongue-in-cheek status.
And the timing couldn't come at a better time for the 32-year-old Baesel, who, like nearly every actor who's ever lived, has endured his share of disappointments.
Baesel auditioned for Behind the Masktwo years ago, after being unceremoniously dumped by a management company when his career failed to explode. "At the time, I hadn't done any film, and I didn't think I had a chance," he said. "But the script was intriguing, and I approached the audition with the idea that this guy could be not only psychotic but also very casual and endearing. He could be charming but still be menacing."
Baesel survived the initial audition and, at the callback, realized his take on the character was causing director/co-writer Scott Glosserman to rethink his film. "I think he'd envisioned it as a kind of outrageous Waiting for Guffmanthing, but later he told me I'd helped convince him that it was just as valid to take it in a very realistic, legitimate direction, something with a lot of humor but that also broke the genre down. It could be self-conscious but with all the touchstones horror fans have come to expect. I think that's why it works and why it appeals to so many people."
Baesel is fully cognizant that Behind the Maskcould serve as his rather grisly meal ticket. "It may not open every door but it certainly could help," he said. "And I'd love to have things move easier and faster and be in a better place professionally, and if this movie did that for me I'd be thrilled. I think it's got everything a movie needs.
"But at the same time, this has been a two-year process. I was on cloud nine after finishing it because it felt like it was going to show a lot of my strengths as an actor, but two years later, I'm still hustling for my next job. So it's helped me learn that expectations are spirit-killing. All you can do is let all that shit go and enjoy the present."
BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON SCREENS AT SCREAMFEST 2006, MANN'S CHINESE THEATER, 6925 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD, (310) 358-3273. SAT., 9:30 P.M. $10.
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