After assorted “Screams” and “Scary Movies,” it may seem late in the day for a satire of slasher cinema. But “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” manages to pump fresh blood into the horror-comedy subgenre. An ingeniously twisted mockumentary about a frightfully ambitious young man who wants to follow in the bloody footsteps of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, pic could generate appreciative reviews and upbeat biz during limited theatrical play before slaying auds in homevid and cable venues. Anchor Bay will kick off release in a dozen major markets Jan. 5.
Working from a sharp script he co-wrote with David J. Stieve, helmer Scott Glosserman does an impressive job of establishing and sustaining the central conceit: Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a would-be bogeyman, prepares himself to draw first blood while followed by a small documentary crew.
Preening and posing for director Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Leslie enthusiastically explains the method behind his madness while doing cardio workouts (all the better to enable him to briskly walk after fleeing victims) and practicing heart-slowing yoga exercises (to make credulous bystanders assume he’s really, really dead). He also invents his own mythos — a backstory involving a purportedly drowned youngster — while scoping out potential victims among the teen population of his small town.
Pic takes some well-aimed potshots at genre cliches. Chief among the comic highlights: Vernon’s guided tour through a secluded cabin that he methodically prepares before the inevitable arrival of doomed teen-agers. (Windows nailed shut? Check. Defensive weapons boobytrapped? Ditto.) As he make ready for murder, Vernon dutifully reminds the documentarians about the cardinal rule of the game — the “last victim” always is the only virgin in the group — thereby planting the seed for a gag that pays off big-time during the actual killing spree.
The wink-wink, nudge-nudge spoofiness extends to the casting of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” star Robert Englund as an obsessed psychiatrist bent on stopping Vernon before he gets started. Vernon describes the doctor as his own private “Ahab” — an absolute necessity for any self-respecting slasher — and, truth to tell, Englund shrewdly channels the spirit of the late Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis in the “Halloween” series.
But the real masterstroke is the tone of straight-faced absurdity maintained throughout Vernon’s sentimental reunion with his mentor, Eugene (Scott Wilson), a “retired” serial killer who marvels at the resiliency of contemporary death-dealers. (Back in his heyday, Eugene notes, he didn’t have to worry about returning for sequels.)
It’s not exactly surprising when Vernon reveals why he chose these particular documentarians — or, more specifically, this particular director — to record his grand debut as a master of mayhem. But Glosserman skillfully maneuvers this twist — more like a 180-degree turn, actually — without forcing his pic off the tracks. Final reel is closer to an actual slasher thriller than a broad comedy, but the mix of jokes and jolts works surprisingly well.
Lead actors are perfectly attuned to pic’s tonal shifts. Baesel comes across as a younger, edgier and much scarier Jim Carrey (think “The Cable Guy II: Back for Blood”), while Goethals nimbly handles the demands of a role that evolves from amusingly satirical concept to seriously distressed damsel to furiously avenging angel. In his scene-stealing supporting turn, Wilson plays it perfectly straight and is all the more hilarious for doing so. Englund is similarly (albeit fleetingly) effective.
Production values are above-average for a small-budget production. Credit lenser Jaron Presant for enhancing the illusion of cinema verite mixed with Grand Guignol. Use of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” to underscore closing credits is an appropriately cheeky capper for pic.