It's easy to make fun of horror movies—David Zucker and the Wayans brothers have made a handy profit off of doing so, and you've probably sat around with friends mocking the clichs at least once in your life. Intelligent satire is a much trickier thing; anybody can joke about how the virgin is always the most likely character to survive a horror movie, but how many filmmakers actually give you an intelligent and amusing theory about why that is?
Such is the strength of Scott Glosserman's Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Two parts mockumentary, one part balls-out slasher, it's set in a world where the kill-sprees of Freddy, Jason, Michael et al actually happened, and a documentary crew, led by the enthusiastic Taylor (Angela Goethals), has been contacted by the latest would-be bogeyman. As they approach his house for the first time, it's a classic horror set up—the place seems abandoned, there are vague glimpses of someone, or some thing watching them . . .
And then Leslie (Nathan Baesel) shows up. A young, spry Ethan Hawke lookalike with a self-deprecating sense of humor and an easy charm, he's certainly not what you'd expect from a movie maniac. But then again, Robert Englund was never that intimidating until he donned the familiar Freddy burn makeup and finger-knives. Leslie has his own bag of tricks in reserve, as does director Glosserman, who has found a huge asset in Baesel. Previously best-known from ABC's Invasion, Baesel delivers a layered, star-making performance as the cocky bad boy who teaches the film crew the secrets behind faking death so as to rise again, doing the right kind of cardio training for a fast-moving-yet-slow-lurching pursuit, and even the industry jargon that those in his trade use. A dogged hero such as Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis in the Halloween movies is called an "Ahab," for instance. It's an additional bonus that the Ahab in this movie is none other than Englund himself.
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An instructive and inevitable comparison is with Scream—Wes Craven's lucrative franchise seemed to bring new life into the slasher genre by having characters be self-aware, but it ultimately played as snark; just because you point out the old tropes, they don't suddenly turn into new ones. Glosserman plays his hand much more cannily (and even delivers the "gratuitous tit shot" that Scream offered and then reneged on). Not only does Leslie come up with some pretty good explanations as to how all the clichs came to be, but he's also being very selective in the information he gives out, so that when he needs to, he can flip the script on the crew (and the viewers) who only think they know him. Baesel plays the line between humor and intensity perfectly—like Angela Bettis in May and Tobin Bell in Saw III, he gives a performance that would be deemed award-worthy if it were in any genre other than horror.
Props also to veteran character actor Scott Wilson (who also currently appears in The Host) as Leslie's mentor Eugene, a killer from the '70s who, in his day, abided by the rules of the grindhouse (no sequels!), and nowadays chops a mean carrot salad. Just as he passes the torch to Leslie, it's easy to envision that Wilson is also conferring his blessing upon Baesel, an actor who clearly has the potential for a career as long and diverse as Wilson's run of 40 years and counting.
But until then, OC residents can still periodically find Baesel appearing on stage at South Coast Repertory, or take an acting class with him at Fullerton's Maverick Theater. Best to be quick about it, though. Once word gets out about Behind the Mask, all available slots should fill up pretty fast.
BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON WAS DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY SCOTT GLOSSERMAN; WRITTEN BY GLOSSERMAN AND DAVID J. STIEVE. COUNTYWIDE.