Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007)

Regular readers of my reviews have probably realized that I really like horror movies. And while I enjoy pretty much all types of them, I have a certain affection for the various slasher movies that populated the genre during the '80s. And although there was a slight renaissance after the release of Scream in 1996, slasher movies have effectively become a dying breed. Slasher movies are so few and far between that they've nearly become extinct.

But that's not to say nobody makes them anymore. It's just a matter of finding them. One that's relatively obscure is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a little flick that could be classified as the horror genre's equivalent of This Is Spinal Tap. Behind the Mask was released in a mere seventy-two theaters last year, and the only way you'd have heard of it is if you're a patron of some of the big-name horror movie websites. But its obscurity is in no way indicative of its quality, because it's one heck of a fun movie.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which horror movie villains like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger not only exist, but are the most prolific serial killers on the face of the planet. In this world, even psychos like them will inspire people to follow in their footsteps.

One such follower is Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a wannabe killer who lives on the outskirts of Glen Echo, Maryland. Taking his name from a local urban legend about a killer who fell victim to vigilante justice, Leslie has allowed filmmaker Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and her crew to follow him as he prepares to enter what he calls the "business of fear."

As the movie progresses, Leslie brings the crew along for the ride. He relays the tricks of the trade, such as the intense training regimen he's developed to help him effortlessly chase victims on the run. He gives the crew a tour around his supposed childhood home, an abandoned farmhouse that he's booby-trapped for maximum murdering potential. He introduces them to Eugene (Scott Wilson), a retired killer who Leslie regularly turns to for advice.

He has them accompany him while stalking a young woman named Kelly (Kate Long Johnson), whom Leslie has picked to be his "survivor girl." Taylor and her crew are even privy to Leslie's first tangle with Dr. Halloran (Robert Engund), an incident that Leslie celebrates as the revealing of his "Ahab," the bastion of good that is unrelenting in his quest to end Leslie's rampage. But when the massacre finally gets underway, Taylor and her crew decide they can no longer sit and watch, and must intervene before a group of innocent teenagers are slaughtered.

The thing about horror/comedies is that most of them don't really work. Either they can't find a proper balance between the elements that comprise them, or the straightforward factor that they just plain suck. That isn't the case with Behind the Mask. It's one of those rare blends of horror and humor than actually results in a good movie.

What makes it work is that it's both an amusing satire of genre conventions, and an effective slasher film in its own right. Behind the Mask, unlike many other recent parodies and satires, shows affection for the movies that inspired it. It doesn't wish to mock the movies it makes reference to, but instead pay its respect by giving funny explanations for many of the genre's most enduring tropes and clichés. And as the movie transitions from satire to straightforward slasher movie, it maintains the humor while working in some well-done scares and suspense.

Director Scott Glosserman does a fine job in this, his feature film debut. The documentary-style approach is a novel idea, one that makes for a very entertaining, unique movie. It takes things to a more intimate level, making the viewer part of the action. When the movie actually adopts a more traditional filmmaking style during the final half-hour of the movie, that intimacy remains with fantastic camera work by cinematographer Jaron Presant. His shots are tight and combined with brisk editing, thus helping to create a tense atmosphere that betters the movie.

I also applaud the music composed by Gordy Haab. Music in movies should be used to enhance the visuals they're backing, and Haab's music does exactly that. And whoever had the idea to play "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads over the closing credits is an absolute genius. That was a brilliant touch, if I do say so myself.

The screenplay, written by Glosserman and David Stieve, is also quite good. It boasts a sharp wit that makes even the goofiest "wink wink, nudge nudge" gags work. It's a neat concept, a mockumentary offering playful explanations for nearly every slasher movie convention you could think of.

The script also toys with these conventions, using them in ways that are familiar yet unexpected. And though the twist near the end may be somewhat predictable, the viewer is so wrapped up in the movie by that point that it isn't really that big of a deal. It also helps that the script features snappy, intelligent, and humorous dialogue, something you don't really see in slasher movies that aren't named "Scream."

Last but not least is the cast, all of whom are great. But truth be told, with the exception of the two leads and two supporting actors, the rest of the cast gets precious little screen time. It doesn't really matter, since those four are enough to carry the movie.

But let's go with the smaller roles first. Up first is Robert Englund, who channels the spirit of Donald Pleasence in a likable performance. I also thought Zelda Rubenstein of Poltergeist fame did a fine job in her cameo as an exposition-spouting librarian. Kate Long Johnson is humorous, as are Ben Pace and Britain Spellings, who play the documentary's cameramen.

But we can't forget those other four actors. The two primary supporting actors, Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton, are incredibly entertaining as Leslie's mentor and his wife. Wilson is amiable yet creepy in the role, while Newton's enthusiastic performance is a pleasure.

The real standouts of the cast, however, are the leads, Nathan Baesel and Angela Goethals. During the documentary portion of the movie, Goethals delivers her dialogue in a stilted, pretentious fashion. It's as if she were imitating every similarly pompous film school documentarian. But once things start going crazy, Goethals changes into a tough, able heroine.

Her effective performance is two sides of the same coin, which is the exact same thing I can say about Baesel. His performance is nothing short of awesome. Playing Leslie Vernon as what would happen if Jim Carrey became a serial killer, Baesel's charming, likable, and funny. But just as Goethals's character goes through a transformation, so does Baesel's. Once he puts on his mask and slips into full killer mode, he becomes scary and intimidating. The layered performance really allows Baesel to steal the entire movie. If you need one reason at all to see Behind the Mask, it's Nathan Baesel.

The year 1992 saw the release of Man Bites Dog, a Belgian mockumentary about a film crew following a serial killer. But while that movie was mostly serious, Behind the Mask is a more light-hearted affair. Sure, it's still a horror movie, but it's one that will put a smile on your face. With a talented cast and an obvious love for the genre, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a movie that's definitely worth your time. So I'll gladly give it four stars on the patent-pending Sutton Scale. As a fan of slasher movies, I definitely approve.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hatchet (2006)

Everyone has their favorite type of horror movie. Some people are into classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. Others like zombies, or the "demon spawn" movies such as Rosemary's Baby and The Omen. Personally, I've always had a soft spot for slasher movies.

I grew up loving the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but unfortunately, they don't make 'em like they used to. Pure, original slasher movies are few and far between nowadays, which is probably why every overeager movie website too full of their own hype goes crazy every time a new one comes out.

A huge example of this can be seen in the movie Hatchet. Written and directed by independent filmmaker Adam Green as a so-called throwback to the slasher flicks of the '80s, Hatchet caused the online horror community to absolutely lose their minds. After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, it spent a year and a half touring the film festival circuit as various online pundits fell over themselves to proclaim it as R-rated horror's almighty savior in a time of PG-13 remakes. And it was even picked up for a theatrical release last fall. Well, it opened in seventy-three theaters, to be exact, in only twenty-seven cities across America. And to tell you the truth, after seeing it, I'm surprised it got a theatrical release at all. Hatchet is a case of hype far outweighing substance, and I'll gladly tell you why.

Having just come off a bad breakup, Ben (Joel David Moore) is dragged down to New Orleans by his best friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) so they can have a little fun at Mardi Gras. All that debauchery isn't exactly Ben's thing, so he talks Marcus into joining him and a group of tourists on a haunted boat ride through the Louisiana bayou.

But when the incompetent tour guide (Parry Shen) accidentally crashes the boat, the group is forced to hike their way back to civilization. Unfortunately, that hike isn't going to be a happy one. It turns out they've become stranded in the domain of Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), a deformed brute who calls the swamp his home. Stuck with no safe way out, the tourists are picked off one by one as they try to survive the wrath of a psychopathic killer.

Hatchet is a movie with some potential, but the problem is that with all the potential in the world doesn't guarantee that your movie will be any good. See, I really don't understand all the love that Hatchet has gotten online. The truth of the matter is that this movie is, at its core, a generic direct-to-video movie that got lucky. This is supposed to be the saving grace of R-rated horror? Yeah, right.

While I will admit that the movie does show a certain affection for the genre, it does nothing to advance it. It's practically a compilation of awful attempts at duplicating every slasher trope and cliché imaginable, with some bad jokes and moderately acceptable special effects thrown in for flavor. Hatchet brings absolutely nothing new to the realm of slasher movies, which is a wee bit ironic when you consider that the Marilyn Manson song "This Is The New Shit" plays over the opening and closing credits.

For the most part, this is the fault of Adam Green's screenplay. Seriously, what is this crap? It's like Green was so focused on creating the next great horror icon that he actually forgot to write a good movie. Sure, he might have thought up some imaginative kills, but Green hasn't come up with anything else that's any good. Most of the dialogue is lame, and the jokes are hit-or-miss (mostly miss). It almost makes you feel sorry for the cast, since they're the ones that have to deliver these embarrassing lines.

And it's not supported by the fact that the characters are the same lame stereotypes you've seen so many times before. There's the nerdy guy, the token black guy, the nosy older couple, the girl who knows exactly what's going on, the sleazy pervert, the two slutty bimbos, the guy who does something incredibly stupid and gets everyone else in trouble, and the monstrous serial killer whose origin story has become a local campfire legend. I know this is supposed to be a love letter to the cheesy slasher flicks of the '80s, but is it too much to ask for characters that rise above the usual tired clichés?

But since slasher movies are more about visual flair than their scripts, you might easily assume that Green's direction would make up for his lackluster writing. But you'd be assuming incorrectly, because the direction is spotty at best. There are some extremely brief flashes of brilliance, but the majority of the time, Green makes it look like anybody with a month or two of film school training could have put this movie together.

Like with the jokes, the majority of the scares don't really work. There are a few that are good, but most of them are predictable or just plain lame. There also isn't very much tension or suspense (if there's any at all), and it eventually becomes obvious that we're just being strung along from one kill to the next. And since the killing doesn't start until over halfway through the movie (not counting the opening scene, that is), we're stuck biding our time until something remotely interesting happens.

It doesn't help that Will Barratt's cinematography is so murky, that it's a struggle to see what's going on for most of the movie. In a movie where the cast is getting hacked to pieces, wouldn't you want the audience to see that? But judging by how dark everything is, my guess is that either Barratt has no clue what a cinematographer is supposed to do, or Hatchet's budget was so low that they couldn't afford to buy any lights.

Maybe it's for the best, because the special effects designed by genre veteran John Carl Buechler are merely adequate, and the poor lighting could cover up any flaws. The effects aren't too bad, I guess, but it's a little off-putting to see blood squirting like someone was shooting it from a spritz bottle.

The music composed by Andy Garfield left a lot to be desired as well. It's just way too generic for its own good, and that's when you can hear it. You can't even tell there's music playing most of the time, though I guess it's better than having it turned up to eleven and making the audience go deaf.

Last up is the cast, and the good performances amongst them are rare. I should say, though, that I did like Joel David Moore and Parry Shen. I enjoyed both of them, and if somebody could work them into a Hatchet sequel, that's be great.

Unfortunately, I can't really pay the same compliments to the rest of the cast. Deon Richmond might not have been too bad if he hadn't been overacting so badly, while Tamara Feldman, who plays the movie's Final Girl, is just plain awful. Feldman delivers her lines like she's has no clue what she's doing. At one point, she's required to defuse an argument by saying the line, "Victor Crowley is real." The scene is written poorly enough as it is, but when it comes time to say the line, Feldman blurts the line out as fast as she can. It's like her terrible acting and Green's terrible writing were made for each other.

I guess I should also point out that Green apparently decided that casting notable names from the horror genre would score him points with the audience. Robert Englund, Tony Todd, the aforementioned John Carl Buechler, and Joshua Leonard from The Blair Witch Project all have brief cameos, while Kane Hodder plays the killer and Mercedes McNab from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel plays one of the two perpetually topless airheads along for the tour through the swamp.

Casting them may have been a ploy to get attention from the genre faithful, but it works, because I can't say that any of them are actually bad. Englund, Todd, Buechler, and Leonard are funny in their quick cameos, while McNab alternates between annoying and mildly entertaining.

And then there's Kane Hodder, who you may know from his appearances as Jason in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth Friday the 13th movies. Playing a character like this is nothing new to Hodder, but since Victor Crowley is a much weaker villain than Jason, it makes it feel like he's just playing the role on auto-pilot. It's a shame, really.

In spite of all the claims about Hatchet's originality, it's really nothing you haven't seen done better in a million other horror movies. This is basically Adam Green's lazy attempt at making a clone of any random Friday the 13th movie. All we're missing here is a summer camp. And pointing out Hatchet's laziness is probably the worst thing I can say about it. It seems like Green spent so much time patting himself on the back, saying what an awesome movie Hatchet was and how Victor Crowley is going to be a new horror icon on par with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, that he just ended up churning out some overrated excuse for a slasher movie.

And what's really bad is that somewhere along the line, Hatchet starts to lose its own identity. It's like the movie doesn't know whether it's a straight horror movie, or a spoof of them. As a parody, it's not all that great, but it's somewhat acceptable, I guess. In that aspect, it's at least a tiny bit better than the crap we've been getting from the Scary Movie franchise and all those other parodies. If it's a straight horror movie, then it's a pitiful excuse for one, thanks to the bad acting, the atrocious script, the cheap production values, and the disappointing lack of effective scares. And if it's an attempt to create another slasher renaissance, it's an astoundingly miserable failure. If I want to watch a slasher movie that both lampoons and reveres the genre, I'll go dust off my DVD of Scream. Because the final truth is that I'd rather watch a good movie, instead of this.

Final Rating: **