Horror as a genre is full of easy targets, which makes it probably the most lampooned genre there is. You have your Scary Movies and A Haunted Houses which spoof all of the recent successes in the genre as well as everything else but then you also have films that parody, honour and do something fresh with the genre.

Considering how common and repetitive the tropes of the genre are, it’s surprising that films such as Scream and The Cabin in the Woods don’t occur more often. There are sixteen years between these two films and in between these successes in revitalising the genre in a clever and self-reflective way, we have just gotten more and more slasher and haunted house flicks that simply just imitate them but on a purely surface level. Look at all the un-ironic stalk and slash films that came out in the wake of Scream to see what I’m talking about. One film however went straight to DVD in 2007 and feels very much the missing link between Scream and The Cabin in the Woods.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon directed by Scott Glosserman is one of the most clever and downright hilarious horror films of recent times. Outside of some film festivals the film went by pretty much unnoticed by anyone except the horror faithful. The problem was that by the time it came out, the days of small studios like Artisan or the Disney backed Dimension Films picking up the indie horrors and promoting them into big successes was long gone. The Blair Witch Project was almost ten years ago and attempting to imitate this successful business model hadn’t really panned out.

This was a time shortly before VOD and a time where cinema release patterns were beginning to change with 12 screen multiplexes up and down the country devoting 4 screens to Spider-Man 3 and no room for the little guy. Things have settled down somewhat now and the VOD market is flourishing with companies like Lionsgate, Magnet and Alliance stepping up and picking up the stand out’s from the masses of horror films that are made each year. Had this film been made and released now, it’s likely that one of this lot would have stepped up and given in the push it deserves.

The film takes place in a world where the killing rampages of famous slasher monsters like Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees were real events and have been revered and honoured by wannabe killers up and down the USA. A group of college kids follow a young upstart named Leslie Vernon, a killer in training who is presumed dead having been thrown over a waterfall by the locals in the town of Glen Echo after he slaughtered his family as a kid. Leslie as played by Nathan Baesel is an extremely charismatic and charming guy, he invites the crew lead by Taylor (Angela Goethals) into his life so they can observe him as he goes through the process of setting up his first big massacre.

Through the students camera we learn the importance of a cardio workout (so Leslie can do that fast walking maniac thing without looking like he is running), the selection process for his young victims and virginal ‘survivor girl’ and the importance of sexual imagery for the grounds where he has chosen to carry out his murder spree. Leslie sabotages most of the objects around his family home so that branches will fall and the only escape our victims will have is out the second storey windows, things we groan at time and again in the films this film riffs on. We also get to meet Leslie’s mentor Eugene (Scott Wilson) from whom he learnt everything and who still practices looking dead in an immersion tank in his backyard although he has apparently retired. As things progress the crew learn that Leslie might not be everything he claims to be thanks to the intervention of an ‘Ahab’ in Doc Halloran (Robert Englund) and that maybe the crew were part of Leslie’s grand plan all along.

One of the great things about this film is its length and pace. Information is not thrown of you in one big too clever for its one good go but is passed out in little snippets throughout the first hour. You never feel like you are drowning in references and jokes but feel like they occur organically with the footage you see through the film crew. There is time to recover from the importance of cardio joke before Scott Wilson gives a speech on how masked lunatics who only did one killing spree cheapened the process for everyone.

Although the film is littered with genre folk like Robert Englund, Scott Wilson and Zelda Rubinstein, they are never shoved down your throat the way they are in a Rob Zombie film and are actually playing living breathing characters. Once the first hour is up the last twenty odd minutes are where the film will either lose the audience or make them love the film further. You could argue that the last act becomes what the film is lampooning and is a conventional slasher. The switch from video camera footage to stock film camera is somewhat jarring as well. The writers though have ensured that even though this section is all about the inventive kills it still relates back to the main plot and there is something of a nice twist involved. The main problem with this section is that Nathan Baesel isn’t on screen except in a mask silently stalking the kids and you miss his charisma and warmth, it’s that good a performance.

So beloved is this film amongst the horror community that Adam Green even chose to reference Leslie Vernon in his script for Hatchet 2. The end credits hint at a sequel that all great maniacs must get. However despite all the love the sequel is having a hard time getting off the ground. The kick-starter campaign for Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon has been around for a couple of years and despite a video appeal from Baesel back in character as Vernon, it is still considerably far off the goal to greenlight the production.

If you are a horror fan then you should have seen this film by now and are doing yourself a disservice not having done so. If you are just a casual fan then you should definitely check this one out. It’s sharp, clever and extremely funny and something of a minor classic that deserves more attention.