Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch — we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
As much as we assume Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream franchise is the be-all and end-all of slasher analysis, there is still room for one more seat at the table. The slasher resurgence following Ghostface‘s debut is relatively short-lived compared to the “golden era” of the early eighties. With some fertile time between the end of the first major slasher renaissance and the genesis of extreme horror, though, a then-unheard-of filmmaker named Scott Glosserman opted to go even further when exploring what makes this particular subgenre so enduring. His innovation gave rise to the new face of meta-horror — Leslie Vernon.
Behind the Mask begins like so many other slashers before it; a young woman catches a glimpse of something peculiar in the corner of her eye. Her paranoia is warranted because that ominous stranger lurking nearby is no other than the subject of a budding journalist’s in-depth documentary. Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) is fairly young, still in school, and is hoping this featurette will open doors for her. What she’s reporting on, though, is unconventional and in fact, incredibly dangerous. Taylor‘s potential big break is documenting Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), an up-and-coming killer in the town of Glen Echo. She isn’t merely reciting the facts of a past true crime, either, like so many podcasts have done and continue to do today. Rather, Taylor has reached out to this fairly innocuous-looking twenty-something-year-old man in hopes of understanding why he wants to become the next Jason Voorhees.
In the world of Behind the Mask, top-tier slasher villains Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, and the aforesaid Crystal Lake slasher are all real — they’re not fictional movie characters. Taylor briefly touches on their histories and legacies at the start of the movie, and then later on, those same icons are mentioned again as Leslie‘s mentor says “Jay” and the rest of them took the art of slashing “to a whole other level.” Meanwhile, Leslie has his own origin to work with; he’s impelled by an urban legend about his unjust murder and his bloodthirsty vendetta against the people of Glen Echo.
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As mentioned earlier, Leslie has a mentor; Eugene (Scott Wilson), who is now retired from the hack-‘n’-slash business, is this alarmingly amiable character who adds substantial and earnest context to everything his prodigy is aspiring to do and be. Awestruck Taylor‘s ignorance in turns allows a deeper analysis of fundamental horror elements written off as clichés today. It is the sort of valuable insight and discussion viewers don’t always see in self-aware horror movies. Something else worthy of mention is how Behind the Mask doesn’t denigrate the genre or its fans, nor does it dismiss critical thinking regarding eternal tropes. Glosserman scratches well below the surface.
The tone for this movie ultimately shifts from humorous to serious, but for the first two acts, things are kept pretty light. Taylor and her two cameramen shadow the eerily charming Leslie as he prepares for his inaugural massacre. He’s picked out his victims — a seemingly chaste teen and her friends — and where he’s going to carry out the slayings; Leslie wants to draw first blood at his ancestral home. In the meantime, the rookie slasher exercises both his body and his mind. He understands the physicality necessary to sustain a long night of killings, as well as the intelligence required to understand and manipulate his target. He puts his selected “survivor girl” through a series of mental games to not only scare her but also lay the foundation of what all’s to come. Leslie even has Taylor help out despite the reporter’s reservations.
Viewers undoubtedly find it hard to believe Taylor and her crew can stay neutral in a situation where lives were at stake. That objectiveness innate to journalism doesn’t last on Leslie‘s anticipated day of gory. Vernon is amped and prepped, and he’s turned his childhood home into a death trap for the amorous teens. After hearing a bloodcurdling preview of forthcoming events, Taylor and her colleagues comes to their senses; they realize they can’t stay quiet anymore. However, breaking their silence and helping the victims try to escape only puts them in equal danger. This is where Behind the Mask abandons all levity and tweaks one notable trope previously belabored during the interviews. It is such a clever twist to the formula, newcomers to the movie can only applaud.
Like fashion, slashers go in and out of season. The subgenre can no longer subsist on your garden-variety spree killers running amok in paper-thin whodunit stories. Conceivably, this is why the post-Scream slasher revival ended so soon after it began; too many filmmakers reverted to the most basic traditions without modernizing and changing gears to reflect a more informed and less susceptible audience. Straying too far from a tried-and-true recipe can lead to disaster and outcry, but staying too close to home is also criticized. Scott Glosserman compromised without avoiding risks — and it paid off.
While it’s certainly easier to ridicule and tear down the likes of Friday the 13th or Halloween for a cheap laugh, it’s more challenging and rewarding to pay tribute to these benchmarks in slasher history. This whole category of horror is not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but for those who feel that way, an inventive and sincere movie like Behind the Mask wants them to reconsider what makes the movies so appealing to ardent fans.
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