The Best Horror Movie of 2006: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

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The Best Horror Movie of 2006: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

This is a solid year of horror releases, although a trend is coming into focus that will become commonplace through the rest of the 2000s and beyond—the best horror films in any given year are often the lower-budget indie fare. As professional grade video filming equipment such as Red digital cameras became commonplace and easily accessible, the result was a boom in high-quality indie horror offerings from first-time directors, as horror proved once again to be a fertile genre for directors to make their debut, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. This year, that spirit manifests itself in throwback slashers like Hatchet and micro-budget zombie fare like Jim Mickle’s ultra-gritty Mulberry Street.

2006 also feels like a year that comes with a specific caveat, however: As much as we love Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it strikes as as more of a pure fantasy and drama than it is a horror film, especially when compared to the more overt horror structures of The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos or Crimson Peak. It is a great film, but the “horror” aspect is more ancillary, and that’s why you won’t see any more mention of it here—plus, it gives us a chance to talk about lesser-known films instead.

In terms of the other prominent offerings from this year, one of the most notable is The Host, the film that put South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) on the map for many U.S. viewers. Featuring an outstanding performance from regular Joon-ho collaborator Song Kang-ho as a lazy father of arguably below-average intelligence, the film is both throwback creature feature and modern environmentalist fable, all in one. It features some wonderful performances, but what you’re likely to remember most afterward is the truly original creature design, which looks like a monstrous tadpole that sprouted legs, grew fangs and clambered awkwardly onto land. Unlike so many monsters designed as “perfect killing machines,” this one is notable in how truly random and ungainly it seems to be—the product not of evolution, but human chemical meddling. This broken creature is ultimately an indictment of our own kind.

Other notables for 2006 include the gross-out body horror comedy of Slither, which is equal parts hilarious and disgusting, and Alexandre Aja’s unnecessary (but brutally effective) remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Horror comedies abound here, in fact, also including Fido and Severance, while Silent Hill represents a half-successful attempt to bring one of the most revered horror videogame series to life on the big screen.

2006 Honorable Mentions: The Host, Slither, The Hills Have Eyes, Fido, Severance, Silent Hill, Them, Mulberry Street, Hatchet, Cold Prey

The Film: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Director: Scott Glosserman

Sometimes, a film suffers in the need possessed by critics to compare it to specific other works. Perhaps, in a world that hadn’t seen Scream (or Man Bites Dog), a movie like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon would have been hailed as a horror revelation. Instead, it simply racked up audience awards at film festivals before dropping off the cultural landscape, establishing only a small cult in the process. And that’s a shame, because in all honesty, Behind the Mask deserves a whole lot more. Yes, its basic outline is on some level informed by Sream, but its writing, villain and protagonist (who are truly one and the same) arguably surpass its source material, or at least match it. This is one of the best meta-examinations of the slasher genre that has been produced to date, and also one of the funniest. It is both a loving homage to the nooks and crannies of a prolific horror sub-genre, and an effective horror film in its own right whenever it chooses to be.

Behind the Mask (it really should have just ended the title there) is presented from its opening moments as footage shot by a TV news channel documentary team, headed up by a reporter named Taylor, as they approach and then interview a man who wishes to establish himself as the next great supernatural slasher killer: Leslie Vernon. You see, in the universe of Behind the Mask, the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were real people whose crimes captivated a nation. Within the world of psycho spree killers (which we are invited into, via Taylor), these slasher icons are revered as auteurs who “changed the industry” from anonymous killings to dramatic works of art, and are spoken about by Leslie and co. like you or I might speak of Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock. What he offers to Taylor is the unprecedented opportunity to see how exactly someone like him “does what I do.”

So begins a story that plays a bit like taking a VIP tour behind the scenes of a Las Vegas magic show, learning the secrets to how killers like Vernon manage to do things that would be described by audience members as “unrealistic.” He discusses the group dynamics of what makes an ideal target group of victims, with the central “survivor girl” who is meant to eventually become his nemesis. He elucidates on how a killer can seem to be in multiple places at once, or why so many unlucky “accidents” seem to befall the victims—because the killer has planned the entire evening in depth, far in advance, rigging the playing field to turn the night in his favor. It’s only fair, after all—as Vernon says at one point, “logistically speaking, I’m at a severe disadvantage here.” You can’t exactly argue the point, but via these lessons, the film does an interesting thing—it both demystifies the slasher as a villain but makes him far more interesting as a human being who is driven to perfecting his art, which requires him to become a mythological symbol of evil. As a sage former killer observes, “for good to be pitted against evil, you’ve got to have evil.”

The film would already be compelling if it simply stuck to this format, but writer-director Glosserman’s masterstroke is a third-act redefinition of the type of film we’re viewing, drawing backward from the mockumentary format to immerse the characters previously stuck behind the camera in the action itself, accompanied by a complete visual overhaul. This is when the meta-observations on the nature of cinema come strongly into play, as its genre-savvy characters attempt to overcome the scenario with the knowledge they’ve acquired while tailing Leslie, only to find that the power of tropes isn’t so easily subverted as they thought. It’s the icing on top of a pitch-perfect parody, expanding the focus of Glosserman’s script from simply the horror genre to the inescapability of basic cinematic story structure.

With a bevy of cameos from genre luminaries such as Robert Englund, Zelda Rubinstein, Kane Hodder and Scott Wilson, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is an indispensable entry in the slasher canon as it continues to evolve and fold in on itself in the post-Scream era. Hopefully, the long-delayed sequel will one day come to fruition, if only because it would help draw viewers back to the underappreciated original.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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