Movies that know they are movies are everywhere. They’re called meta, a term that’s erroneously used to refer to films that impart a smidgen of irony over their discourse. That’s all fine and dandy, but what does it mean? Simple. They reference other movies to shrink the gap between us and events within the movie, as if to say “We know that you know that we know I Know What You Did Last Summer sucks.” Y’know?
Scream paved the way for a new breed of horror that embraced that ideal as a tool to create a better, more innovative slasher. That self-referential tip has prevailed in the 20 years since, albeit with mixed results. A number — Scream Queens and MTV’s Scream series, most recently — draw parallels through name-checking. It’s a lazy way to imply cool. If I wanted to watch a bunch of teens in a hideous scenario referencing movies, I’d hang around out in the back of my local Safeway, dodging hot rocks and hurtful comments like “excuse me, ma’am”. It’s on the turn, though. Creative spins like Cabin In The Woods and The Final Girls suggest we’re headed into a new domain of intertextual entertainment. This is where Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon cleans up. Well, cleaned up. It came out in 2006.
I know, I’ve probably already pissed some of you off by awarding “best meta-horror since Scream” to something other than Cabin In The Woods. Hear me out.
With a shoestring budget and a dash of cunning Scott Glosserman created a fresh, fun, and fucking creepy meta-horror. The events take place in the sleepy town of Glen Echo, a ‘burg that exists in the world where the killing sprees of Haddonfield, Crystal Lake, and Elm Street all happened — Myers, Voorhees, and Krueger are infamous serial killers. The uptick in slasher baddies leads us to Glen Echo’s Leslie Vernon.
The ogre behind the mask isn’t a horrific, scarred villain we’re so used to seeing butcher teens onscreen. Leslie Vernon looks like Stephen Dorff. And he’s charming. We’re introduced to him via a trio of grad students — not unlike the Blair Witch three — who agree to film his experiences as a slasher movie villain. No one says that exactly, and no one drops in a reference to Halloween. They can’t, because those movies don’t exist in this diegetic world.
Which is fantastic.
In following Vernon’s pre-killing spree plans, all the behaviors of movie killers are exposed, forming a bricolage of recognizable horror tropes without all the self-aware congratulatory winks. The moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare? Most killers practice “being dead” with regular stints in sensory deprivation tanks. The slow stalk of the killer who always catches up to sprinting victims? All a pretense, according to Leslie, who professes right from the start that the key to being a good killer is cardio. The final girl also gets a reboot, referred to here as survivor girl.
Other fun riffs involve Leslie’s mentor played by The Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson. A retired serial killer, he opens up about the “good old days” to Taylor, the grad student in charge of the documentary.
Horror legends Robert Englund and Kane Hodder — who played Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees respectively — also appear, to up the stakes and further muddle the boundaries. Englund takes a supporting role as “the Ahab” Doc Halloran (admittedly, a nod to The Shining) the do-gooder who tries to stop Leslie’s plan. Meanwhile, Hodder appears in a fleeting cameo as a resident of Elm Street.
A slasher film by definition still requires a bloodthirsty killer and a group of unsuspecting teenagers, and that’s where Behind The Mask best skewers the sub genre. Intercut with the shaky handheld footage are moments where we see how this would play out were we actually watching a slasher film:
The dichotomy between the carefree Leslie, who jests with Taylor and the crew, and the mask-wearing, scythe-wielding psycho who stalks his survivor girl is striking. Perhaps that’s the whole point. It certainly helps when that final twist arrives.