Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war.
— George W. Bush, 20 September 2001
Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) has a calling. Or maybe it’s just a psychosis. In any event, he’s determined to make his name as the next great serial killer, following in the hallowed footsteps of Freddie, Jason, and Mike. And he’s come up with a surefire way to make that mark, namely, a college film crew eager to document his doings.
The kids have their own agenda, though they don’t pronounce it quite so brightly as Leslie does his. Reporter Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals, Maya in 24‘s Day Four), alongside Dougie (Ben Pace) and Todd (Britain Spellings) imagine their project as a first-of-its-kind, a ticket to their own sort of journalistic fame. And from the first frame of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, they’re part in cahoots with and part in awe of their subject, as he’s laying out the most effective ways to select and frighten a virgin (who will become his “Survivor Girl,” his means to much-desired infamy, as she will, of course, survive to tell his tale) and build a proper backstory. Leslie is basing his character on a boy tossed over a waterfall in Glen Echo, Maryland by a “frenzied mob” who believed him “possessed by evil.”
Taylor peppers Leslie with questions as he reveals his process, as she appears intent on recording each step, understanding the inner workings of this oh so modern phenomenon. He offers a tour of his humble home, complete with how-to manuals and pet turtles he admits he leaves for days at a time without feeding (“Turtles are good that way,” observes Taylor, “Very shui,” at which point Leslie sets her straight: “I only keep pets I can eat.”) When Leslie waxes pretty about “tricks of the trade,” Taylor tries to reframe: “In reality, aren’t you talking about terrorizing innocent people?” But Leslie’s not having it: his art has its own moral dimensions. The virgin he’s prepping for Last Girldom — in this case, Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson) — will come into her own, become a certain kind of “woman,” under his direction.
Leslie’s especially keen on the details, from symbolic locations (the library where Kelly will discover her own, long-repressed familial connection to the killer, the tool shed where she will discover weapons to fight back) to dates (the harvest moon, etc.). Settings and legends are key, insists Leslie, as he walks his interlocutors through a brief history of past stars, illustrated by “footage” of Elm Street that includes a camera-shy neighbor who’s cutting his hedge, played by hulking Kane Hodder (who appeared in a couple of Friday the 13thss). Such in-jokes make Behind the Mask seem more geared toward genre aficionados than more mainstream spoofing (most of Scream‘s references are obvious to casual slasher fans), and help it maintain a darker sensibility, more like the Belgian mock-doc Man Bites Dog, which also included a camera crew along for an increasingly harrowing ride.
Leslie evinces an intense understanding of his relationship with his crew, acting as if they must earn his trust when he is also assembling theirs in him. And he’s funny. When Taylor inquires after his rigorous cardio regime, the gonnabe monster explains, “First, you have to be able to run like a freakin’ gazelle and not get winded. Plus, there’s that whole thing of making it look like you’re walking, when everyone else is running their asses off.”
Leslie’s intermittent charm is derived in part from his mentor, Eugene (wry and sad-eyed Scott Wilson), now retired and happily married to his last Last Girl, Jamie (Bridgett Newton). Barbequing dinner in his trucker’s cap and flannel shirt, he explains his own old-school aesthetic: “We just hit hard,” he says of himself and his generation, “Wiped out everybody we could, and disappeared, without ever giving a thought to coming back.” Not nearly so cunning, he notes, as the artists who followed, those sequelized killers who “turned themselves into legends by returning like a curse over and over again. That was a radical change of philosophy, changed the whole business.” That would be, he says, “The business of fear. Every culture, every civilization since the dawn of man has had its monsters. For good to be pitted against evil, you have to have evil, don’t you?”
You also have to have a way to make your legend known. And this is the genius of Leslie’s project. He means to enjoy and exploit the mediation of his fame at the very moment it’s established: as he stages his night of terror, he also directs its recording. In its unnerving attention to the cultural apparatus that produces serial killers — individual dementia meshed with collective appetites for noxious celebrity — Behind the Mask also recalls John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, still the most remarkable meditation on this dreadful relationship between violent spectacle and spectators. Though Henry’s (Michael Rooker) audience was ostensibly limited to himself and his short-lived partner Otis (Tom Towles), he revealed in their home-movie documentations of rape and murder a particular ethics premised on fine lines between visual pleasures as visceral horrors, implicating killers, documenters, and consumers all at once.
Leslie’s venture is more overtly comedic (he’s giddy when he discovers he has attracted an “Ahab,” the relentless pursuer Doc Halloran [perennial good sport Robert Englund]). This makes Behind the Mask both more appealing to a broader audience than Henry and a little too pleased with itself. (At the end, the corner it’s backed itself into only has one, too predictable way out.) But still, the film’s grasp of the connections between media and violence (with sex, of course) is sharp.
Its parody is geared for viewers familiar with TV forensics lessons, Nancy Grace, and torture as public policy. Leslie comprehends how language shapes such familiar horrors. When he describes the process of selecting a “target group,” Taylor tries to correct him: “You mean ‘victims.'” Leslie shrugs her off. “Potato, potahto,” he sighs, rejecting such semantic morality and focusing instead on what consumers get most wrong about him, that is, assuming that he is a deviation. Instead, as he and Gene and Jamie all understand, serial killers are symptoms and distractions, serving crucial cultural functions. “Everyone thinks we just wake up one morning and start obsessing about a girl,” he says, “And start stalking her and killing everyone else who gets in the way.” But no. As Leslie acts out repeatedly, the relationship between the serial killer and his “target group” is intimate and mutual.