Writers: Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve
Cast: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Bridgett Newton, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Kate Lang Johnson
Plot: Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), a journalism grad student, has found the perfect subject for her student film. Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) was a child possessed by a terrible evil and murdered by an unruly mob years ago. Now, he has risen from the grave to terrorize the town of Glen Echo, Maryland. At least, that’s the story. Vernon, very much alive, has grown up idolizing the likes of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, and today he’s working to join their ranks. He’s allowing Taylor and her camera crew to film him in the process of becoming the next great slasher killer. Leslie leads Taylor and her crew members, Doug and Todd (Ben Pace and Britain Spellings) to the old house where he lived before his “death.” Teenagers sneak out to the house every year on the anniversary of his demise, and this year, Leslie is planning to return.
But that’s a month away, there’s still a lot of work to do to prepare his “survivor girl’ – the one person he’s going to attack that’s going to survive to carry on his legend. Leslie stakes out waitress Kelly Curtis (Kate Lang Johnson). He waits for her to dump the garbage from the diner and sets up a quick scare for her. The burst of adrenaline from shocking Kelly goes throughout Taylor and the crew, and they and Leslie begin to bond. The crew visits Leslie’s friends Eugene and Jaime (Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton). Eugene is a retired killer who has been a mentor to Leslie, Jamie his supportive wife. Eugene advises Leslie to make his preliminary strike against someone only loosely connected to Kelly, and he chooses a librarian (Zelda Rubinstein). He plants a fake newspaper article for Kelly to find implying a “great uncle” she never knew about raped Leslie’s mother, thus creating a connection between himself and his target, then waits for her to find it. After the librarian “explains” the article he slays her, but instead of chasing Kelly as intended, he’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of Doc Halloran (Robert Englund). Leslie is ecstatic: he has an “Ahab,” a good person who knows the killer and will stop at nothing to defend the innocent.
Despite Leslie’s insistence that they stay away from Kelly, Taylor visits her diner. Halloran is there, and he warns them that Leslie is not who he claims to be, that he’s from Nevada and is using a fake name. When Kelly approaches, nervous, Taylor and Todd flee. When they return to Leslie he’s enraged, shoving her into their van, but he calms down and promises to tell her everything she needs to know. He confesses he’s not Molly Vernon’s son, just using her name to build his legend, and that he understands if Taylor wants to leave. Reluctantly, she decides to see it through.
He takes her back to the Vernon farm to show her his preparations to the house, barn, apple orchard and mill. He’s made it easy to cut the power, put dead batteries in the flashlights, sabotaged the available weapons, set up rooms to be open to teens having sex and other places to make it easy to dispose bodies… it’s all about narrowing it down to just him and Kelly for a final confrontation. When the teenagers arrive, he even swipes a sparkplug from their car.
When a pair of Kelly’s friends begin having sex, Leslie starts his killing. Taylor and the film crew are suddenly unnerved, realizing how real the situation has become, and Leslie ushers them outside. He goodbye to them, knowing that at the end of the night he’ll be hiding, locked up, or dead anyway. Todd and Doug are ready to leave, but Taylor finds herself unable to stand aside and allow the killing spree to continue. They go into the house to warn Kelly and the others and, to their shock, find the “virginal” Kelly having rambunctious sex. Taylor is unable to understand why Kelly is behaving like just another victim instead of a Survivor Girl. With the teens’ cars sabotaged they rush to Taylor’s van, finding two bodies and an engine that doesn’t work. Taylor tries to urge Kelly to become the heroine Leslie wants him to be, but instead, she turns out to be the next victim. He chases the rest to the barn, killing Todd on the way, and Taylor realizes that Leslie had planned everything from the beginning. Kelly was never supposed to be the real Survivor Girl. Taylor was.
Halloran arrives, but neither he nor Doug – who confesses his love for Taylor – can stop Leslie. Soon he and Taylor are all that remain, racing through the apple orchard and playing out the final confrontation as planned. They arrive at the apple mill, where Taylor knows Leslie has planned the last showdown. Taylor traps him in the apple press and, with his head clamped down, he removes his mask and whispers to Taylor that he knew she was the one. With one final crank of the press, she crushes his head, then sets the mill on fire, weeping. She finds Doug and Halloran, still alive, and they watch the mill burn.
As the credits roll, Leslie’s charred remains are rolled into a police morgue. We watch and listen to his whispering voice. Just as the film ends, he sits up on the slab behind a hapless scrub. Just like the monsters he so idolizes, Leslie Vernon will rise again.
Thoughts: Although not as well-known as most of the other movies in this project, there was never any doubt for me that I would include it. I really don’t remember how I first discovered this little movie a few years back, but it instantly became one of my favorites. Like Shaun of the Dead, it’s ripe with meta-commentary on horror movies. Like Eight Legged Freaks, it manages to parody the genre it loves. But unlike either of these, it twists the entire world of the movie on its ear for a fantastic final act.
During the buildup, the movie comes across as a typical mockumentary. Leslie gives talking head interviews, Taylor follows him in his preparation and asks dozens of questions, and you quickly find yourself as charmed by Leslie as Taylor is. By all appearances, Leslie is a very warm, friendly, congenial young man. He shows great care for his pet turtles and is intensely proud of his enormous library, which is loaded with medical journals and books about escape artists and illusionists. He reminds me of a more gregarious Norman Bates – at the beginning of Psycho Anthony Perkins feels like a really nice (if somewhat browbeaten) sort of guy. Leslie has that same quality, with the added bonus of being funny and entertaining to boot. When the film turns later on and we realize that Taylor and her crew are, in fact, his targets, the effect is shocking. Leslie is a remorseless murderer. The entire movie is about following him as he plans his murders. And yet, when he suddenly starts murdering our heroes, we are shocked and horrified, as if there was no way we could have seen this coming. There’s a brilliance here that is almost impossible to quantify.
Eugene is a very good addition to the cast, allowing the (real) filmmakers to put out commentary on the state of horror movies and of fear itself. The sort of things he says actually make a lot of sense if you filter them through a real-world prism and consider the words as film criticism instead of the actual words of a killer. He comes across as a pretty typical character type – the old pro who’s upset because things just aren’t as good as they used to be. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s talking about cold-blooded murder, he’d be like somebody’s grumpy old uncle.
If you want more horror movie commentary, the extended sequence where Leslie describes the way the killing spree is supposed to go down is going to delight you to no end. Leslie taps into every psychological theory and trope used in the construction of horror movies, pounding home things like imagery, the importance of gender roles in the weapons used and in the Survivor Girl’s metamorphosis into a heroine, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting, even though I’m literally typing this paragraph while watching the scene. There’s just too much for me to keep in my head. Glosserman and Stieve could teach a graduate class in the psychology of horror.
A lot of the more lighthearted stuff doesn’t even come from the story or the characters, but from little Easter Eggs the filmmakers throw in for those who know where to look. The references to Freddy, Jason and Michael are obvious, and Robert Englund’s sizable role is a lot of fun. But people wondering where they’ve seen the librarian before would do well to check out Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, and most people won’t even realize the Elm Street resident Taylor tries to talk to is Kane Hodder, the man who played Jason Voorhees more times than any other. Other things, smaller things, litter the background of the film, all of them there to make you laugh if you know where to look.
There are nice tricks on the technical side of the movie as well. Whenever we see one of Leslie’s “attacks,” we switch from the videotaped “mockumentary” style to a more traditional film stock, complete with a musical score, coverage, and all of the other techniques common to movies that don’t fit into the “found footage” subgenre. The “real” scenes grow progressively longer, until the finale, when the movie drops the comedy and the commentary and turns into a straight-up horror movie, with Leslie hunting down Taylor, the true survivor girl.
Towards the end of the film, things begin spiraling through a litany of emotions. Jamie reveals that she was once Eugene’s Survivor Girl, which makes you ask a dozen questions about how the hell she ended up married to him. Taylor and Leslie have a soft, somewhat disturbing conversation as he puts on his makeup and prepares for the evening, and the way he begins sobbing, claiming to be happy at the sudden culmination of his life’s work… it’s eerie. Even now, though, even though we’ve already seen him kill one person for real and watched his plans to kill a dozen more, there’s an unnerving humanity to him that feels somehow honest and wrong at the same time.
I’m also a fan of the visuals of the movie. The “real” segments are high-quality and well-shot, and I love the design of Leslie’s costume and mask. He’s the sort of character that kids should be dressing up as for Halloween every year – creepy mask, shredded clothes, an easy prop weapon to lug around with him… Well, maybe if the sequel ever gets made.
Sadly, the Kickstarter campaign to fund the already-scripted prequel/sequel didn’t succeed, and plans are currently in limbo. The filmmakers and cast – including Robert Englund – are all willing to return to the world of Leslie Vernon, and so is the small but dedicated fan base. So perhaps you’ll allow me to play advocate for a moment. If you’ve read this far into Lunatics and Laughter, I’m willing to bet this is exactly the kind of movie you’d be into. Unfortunately, you also probably never saw it. Do yourself a favor and hunt down the DVD or call it down from NetFlix. It’s a great movie that has everything you love about horror in a unique, incredibly entertaining package. Join us in Leslie’s legion, and help us bring Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon to life.
Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.