For all of its lame distastefulness, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a sadly appropriate reflection of its time. A self-aware parody of the slasher genre that approaches the material as if such infamous movie icons as Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Vorhees were all actually real, the film posits escapist horror conventions onto the culturally reflective tactics of reality television. With the plotlines of many a horror film of late focusing on death (Final Destination), dismemberment (Hostel), and various other forms of torture (Saw), this nugget of an idea suggests the desired visceral indulgences of a physically hung-up post-9/11 audience turned on their heads, blurring the line between those films that take giddy enjoyment out of death and those that skewer their carnage with something a bit more virtuous than anti-human indulgences. Were the film subversive enough to actually pull this off, but alas, The Devil’s Rejects this is not.
A horror icon wannabe in training, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) is the unlikely survivor of a rioting mob that, as per the accepted official record, left him dead years ago, his body thrown over an icy waterfall, never to be seen again. Now begrudgingly living on the outskirts of the town that betrayed him, he pools together his resources in order to gain revenge and establish himself as the Next Big Thing in the world of established psycho killers, and has agreed to be the subject of grad student Taylor Gentry’s (Angela Goethals) documentary feature. Gaping logic holes notwithstanding (why would he want the exposure if he’s trying to pass himself off as the undead?), what follows is something of a behind-the-scenes tour of slice n’ dice horror conventions (if Behind the Mask succeeds anywhere, it’s in reaffirming how incredibly contrived most sequel-heavy horror franchises truly are), but one that is entirely humorless in its pedantic explanation of such things as the need for phallic imagery and why virgins usually survive the slaughter.
The best of modern horror films charge their blood-soaked mayhem with deliberate undertones, from Night of the Living Dead‘s us-versus-them social divisions to Wolf Creek‘s indiscriminating terrorism hellfire. In paying homage to Myers and company, Behind the Mask paints its conflict in plainly boring strokes of black and white, castrating the genre’s moral tendons in order to glorify empty spectacle (is it any coincidence that 300 made a killing this past weekend, pun entirely intended?). Leslie’s “death” isn’t a motivation for his bloodlust, just an excuse to provide a no-shit-Sherlock contrast to good, and while the documentarians ultimately realize their own moral obligation to put a stop to the slaughter, the long-overdue turning of the tables plays out as both half-baked and disingenuous, the carnage as anti-human as any number of its trashy predecessors’ would-be climaxes. Rankly dishonest in wanting to have its cake and eat it too, Behind the Mask is most offensive in successfully giving the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and undeserved bad name by association.