Following Wes Craven’s genre-re-defining Scream movies (1996, 1997, 2000, and 2011) and the surprise popularity of the spoofy Scary Movie series (2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, and 2013), it became nearly impossible for filmmakers to poke fun at the persistent conventions of the slasher movies of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Given the shift in the political climate from the late ‘90s to the early ‘00s, horror movies weren’t particular interested in laughs or satire, anyway. Generally speaking, post-2001 bodycount movies went the route of Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn (2003), Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005), and Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006) – they were aware of their forebearers, but they tended to play their homage relatively straight. Hatchet was even advertised as “Old School American Horror” as a nod to slasher fans that were tired of Scream-like postmodernism.
Meanwhile, just previous to Scream’s success, French student filmmakers Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, and André Bonzel applied a pseudo-improv, mockumentary slant to a jet-black comedy they called Man Bites Dog (French: C'est arrivé près de chez vous, 1992). In the film, a neophyte documentary film crew follows the day-to-day adventures of a charming serial killer named Ben (portrayed by Poelvoorde). At first, the film presents Ben’s crimes as quirky, even silly, but, as he gains the trust of the documentarians and begin to participate, his wanton rape, murder, and mutilation escalates. Critics tried to compare Man Bites Dog to the gentler mockumentaries of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman  and Best in Show ), but prospective art house audiences were instead shocked by the film’s NC-17 violence and escalating reprehensibility. Nevertheless, the film managed to gain a strong cult following on the US home video market, culminating in a special edition DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Writer/director Scott Glosserman attempted to bring something new to the world of slasher satire by combining the rule-savvy approach of Scream with the mockumentary gimmick of Man Bites Dog. The results were Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) – a movie that takes place in an alternate universe where slasher killers, like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, exist and thrive. Beneath their legendary status is a group of lesser-known slasher killers that are working their way up the ranks and paying their dues like aspiring Hollywood hopefuls. Sitting at the bottom of the slasher killer ladder is Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), who invites a journalist Taylor (Angela Goethals) and her two-man camera crew, Doug (Ben Pace) and Todd (Britain Spellings), to document his daily regiment as he prepares to make his “feature debut.”
Behind the Mask is divided into two separate, interlocking pieces. The first is the mockumentary, which peels back the fourth wall to tell the audience the tale behind a faux-slasher hero. These sequences are shot using early ’00s digital video cameras to recall the look of the era’s most popular DIY documentaries. The second is the “movie” that Leslie is “designing” for himself. These scenes were shot using 16mm film, dynamic camera angles, and saturated lighting schemes to demonstrate a more cinematic quality. This appears to indicate that the characters live in a movie world, similar to John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993) or Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). This stylistic choice helps sell the overlapping meta-joke – when an audience (i.e. us in the real world) isn’t watching, the movie world is just as mundane as our own. It isn’t clear whether the characters in the film are aware of themselves as existing for the sake of our entertainment (itself being the existential crisis at the center of Last Action Hero), but it doesn’t really matter, because they are certainly aware of the rules that define their world.
Behind the Mask was probably released a few years before its time. Not enough years had passed for audiences to forget a decade’s worth of Scream clones and, in the modern world, pop fame isn’t achieved via reality shows (though those still thrive) as much selling one’s talents in bite-sized pieces on social media. In 2006 (note that the movie was filmed in 2004), Facebook was still mostly used by college students, Twitter had barely been launched, and YouTube was just a depository for cute cat videos. Had Glosserman concocted his slasher satire in a thriving social media environment, Leslie Vernon might’ve been live-streaming his kills and gaining millions of Instagram followers with his stylish mask and costume tips. Perhaps the critical and box office sting of Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween: Resurrection (2002) – which involved an internet reality show accidentally live-streaming Michael Myers’ latest slaughtering spree – was still too fresh to revisit the idea. Such ideas may seem hackneyed, following the releases of social media horror tales in the ensuing decade, both good (Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended, 2014) and bad (Tara Subkoff’s #Horror, 2015), but Behind the Mask is made with enough wit and whimsy that I think an updated variation could work.
Behind the Mask was originally released/distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment via a special edition DVD and, much later, a lackluster Blu-ray, minus all of the DVD’s extras (it was also VC-1 vs. AVC MPEG-4, if that makes a difference to you). Scream Factory has gone back to the original 2K intermediate for their Collector’s Edition HD remaster. Glosserman and cinematographer Jaron Presant divide the film between digital video and 16mm formats. As mentioned in the review above, the ‘documentary’ scenes are represented by over-sharpened, artifacty digital video. The sequences that represent Leslie’s ‘movie’ are designed with an almost satirically cinematic, 16mm film-based look. Between the two formats, Behind the Mask isn’t the greatest candidate for an HD remaster. Still, it’s nice that Scream Factory put the effort in, because the increase in resolution helps to differentiate between the image types and punches up the clarity of the purposefully soft ‘movie’ scenes. For the most part, the various artifacts, digital and film-based, appear accurate enough considering the original condition of the material.
Scream Factory has upped the ante on the original Blu-ray release’s Dolby Digital soundtrack with an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. The audio matches the video in the sense that it is divided between the ‘documentary’ and the ‘movie.’ The documentary is largely music-free, low on added sound effects, and largely centered. The sound quality is purposefully hampered by a lack of microphone coverage during some scenes and similar distortion is likely intended. The movie scenes, on the other hand, feature dynamic soundscapes, heightened effects, directional cues, and Gordy Haab’s very referential musical score. It’s not a particularly aggressive track, either way, but it’s nice to hear it in its full glory, rather than a low-volume and lossy DVD style track.
Commentary with co-writer/director Scott Glosserman, moderated by filmmakers Adam Green & Joe Lynch – Glosserman speaks with the writer/director of the Hatchet series (Green) and director of Everly (Lynch, 2014) in this charming, off-the-cuff track. Scream Factory isn’t advertising it as a new track, but it wasn’t on any of Anchor Bay’s DVDs, so it’s new to me. Almost immediately, the group wanders off on tangents that are unrelated to the film, but Green & Lynch are surprisingly invested in keeping Glosserman on-topic.
Commentary with cast members Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Britain Spelling, and Ben Pace – The second track, which was included on Anchor Bay’s DVD, features the main cast goofing off and laughing through behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It’s very busy, but also sweet.
Behind the Mask: Joys and Curses (28:50, HD) – Brand new, Scream exclusive interviews with Goethals, Pace, and co-writer/co-producer David Stieve. Given the sort of scatter-shot approach to the commentaries, this featurette offers a more streamline look at the production, despite some overlap. Stieve’s contributions are especially important, since he was missing from previous special features. The discussion ends with some descriptions of the long-in-development sequel.
Before The Mask: The Comic Book (6:19, HD) – Another Scream exclusive interview with writer/artist Nathan Thomas Milliner, who discusses the comic book sequel he adapted from Stieve and Glosserman’s script.
The Making Of Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (32:08, SD) – The original behind-the-scenes featurette, as seen on AB’s DVD. Short, but very personable.
The Casting Of Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (6:00, SD) – A corresponding casting featurette, complete with audition tape footage.
Ten deleted/extended scenes with optional Glosserman commentary (29:44, HD)
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