Director: Scott Glosserman
Writer: David J. Stieve and Scott Glosserman
A team of film students making a documentary follows a man around as he prepares to initiate his on horror movie-style killing spree.
I don't know how this movie slipped under my radar for so long. It's a very interesting exercise in postmodernism. First, a definition for the big word. As far as film goes, postmodern theory suggests that the cinematic medium has permeated our culture so deeply that it enters a state of conventionality that affords future films to comment on and become "[nostalgic] for past forms, genres, and styles" ¹. Essentially, postmodern films are acutely aware of their predecessors and comment – knowingly or otherwise – on them through their own narrative and imagery. This trend is most common in genre films like the western, horror or science fiction films. There are certain codes and symbols that subsequent films build on that, as scholars in genre theory argue, "evolve" into alternative forms of the same genre. But genre theory, like all theories, is not perfect and is far too big a topic to tackle here.
Reflexivity is the mode in which Behind the Mask works with postmodern theory. Behind the Mask, as its title suggests, is not only aware that it is a slasher film but actively deconstructs the slasher mythology already in place. Since the inception of this subgenre ², certain narrative conventions, themes, and images are repeated and built upon until we get to a film like Scream (1996) which attempts to explain these conventions as the "rules [...] to successfully survive a horror movie." It does all this from within its own narrative. Scream opened a cinematic Pandora's Box when its subtext was brought to the surface and took control of its narrative text ³. While the film itself, along with writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven, is aware of its position as a slasher movie, its characters are not, thus preserving the liminal space between the artwork and the artifice.
Behind the Mask penetrates this space with the combination of two cinematic apparatuses: the digital video (DV) camera and the film camera. The conceit of the film is that a group of film students are making a documentary on an up-and-coming slasher villain, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel). That is the diegetic world of the film. What makes Behind the Mask stand out is its use of a second non-diegetic narrative that actively comments on the primary, diegetic narrative. The difference is visually cued by the switch from DV to celluloid. When the documentary about Leslie (the diegetic narrative) is in action, the film is shot on DV and when the slasher movie that Leslie is creating (the non-diegetic narrative) in is action, the filmmakers use celluloid film with all the lighting and sound cues associated with the horror genre.
Normally in a horror film of any kind, the audience tends to align themselves with the hero(ine) of the story and hopes for their survival. As slasher films reaped obscene amounts of money and lucrative franchises were churned out, the villains (Jason, Michael, Freddy, etc.) became the hero/villains of the story. The victims were just a means for more inventive death scenes in the next entry. As I like to say of these series, "how are the kids going to get it this time?" With Behind the Mask, when in diegetic mode, we are aligned with interviewer Taylor (Angela Goethals) in her mission to understand why Leslie is a serial killer. When the film slips into non-diegetic mode, we take the place of the narratively absent Taylor until the final segment of the film when the non-diegetic narrative fully takes over the diegetic narrative and we are again positioned as spectator/victim/killer.
As serious as all this sounds, Behind the Mask treats its subject with a light heart. Leslie Vernon is a personable, witty, attractive man who has taken it upon himself to do justice to his predecessors. We like him and want him to succeed in his violent plan but at the same time, we want Taylor to fulfill her necessary role in both the film and Leslie constructed narrative. Leslie is as much the author of the final segment of the film as the screenwriters or director. He wields such authorial power that he can change the story plotted out during the diegetic segments.
This is a film ultimately designed for horror buffs who can appreciate its wit and tongue-in-cheek charm. Even those who are unfamiliar with slasher movie conventions will get a kick out of it. The performances by the principle actors are strong and well pitched, but the minor details and touches really bring the project home. One that springs to mind is when Leslie's mentor Eugene (Scott Wilson) is recounting the "old days" of the business while cutting up carrots for dinner. We hear him steadily chopping but as he becomes agitated, we hear the chopping accelerate to an inhuman speed and the disturbed look on Taylor's face. The pay off is the pile of carrot mush with the butcher knife sticking straight up in the cutting board. It's funny but unnerving at the same time.
Behind the Mask is as equally respectful to the slasher subgenre as it is a send up. It lampoons the more ridiculous elements while seriously analyzing the more salient themes. Not a perfect film but refreshing nonetheless.
Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover
How to Survive a Horror Movie by Seth Grahame-Smith
¹ Hill, Val. "Postmodernism and Cinema." In The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, edited by Stuart Sim, 93-102. London: Routledge, 2005.
² Like some other scholars, I cite 1974 as the birth of the slasher film with the release of both Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There were, of course, earlier instances of slasher themes and images in films like Psycho (1960), Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Straight-Jacket (both 1964), and Bay of Blood (1971). However, the first films to fully flesh out the now iconic images didn't appear until the mid-1970s. The 1980s saw the introduction of the prolific franchises (Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and a flood of like-minded, one-off entries that were quick moneymaking enterprises. The end of the 80s saw a winding down of the subgenre, in both box office returns and creativity, which fully resurfaced in the mid-1990s.
³ Scream, of course, was not the first horror film to attempt this kind of narrative reflection. A personal favorite is the commercial unsuccessful 1987 slasher/comedy Return to Horror High. A feature film crew is slaughtered while trying to film the "true story" of a high school massacre year earlier. The screenwriter, the only survivor, recounts the failed production to police.