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Lunatics and Laughter Day 16: Behind the Mask-The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

behind-the-maskDirector: Scott Glosserman

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.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 34: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

blair-witch-projectDirectors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

Plot: The movie opens up with a title card informing the viewer that three film students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, and that what we’re about to watch is their footage, which was found a year later. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (using their real names) pack up their equipment and begin walking around town, asking locals questions about the mysterious legend of the Blair Witch. The locals of Burkittsville – formerly known as Blair — weave a story about a lunatic in the 1940s who kidnapped and murdered seven children, claiming to be compelled by the spirit of an 18th-century witch named Elly Kedward, who was hanged by the people of Blair. The three of them go into the woods to seek out Coffin Rock, supposedly a spot where five men were bound together and murdered over a century earlier. They make camp, and in the morning Josh reports waking up in the night and hearing some cackling sounds from the woods. Friction begins to grow between Mike and Heather – Mike insisting she keeps getting them lost – and Josh tries to play peacemaker. As they wander, they find stones and branches arranged in strange structures that seem to echo something told to them in town by a woman they dismissed as a lunatic. They hear more sounds in the night, and wake up to a rainfall and an angry Mike, who believes locals have followed them into the woods to toy with them. They try to walk back back to where they left their car, but are unable to find it before nightfall and finally make camp. That night, they hear more of the strange sounds outside the tent, and in the morning they find three piles of rocks that weren’t there before. Before they leave, Heather realizes she can’t find the map, and the three of them all begin suspecting each other of taking it. After some time, Mike laughs and confesses he threw the map into the creek, and Heather and Josh attack him in a rage.

Later, calmer, they find figures made from sticks dangling from the trees, and eventually, they decide to make camp and not light a fire, terrified that someone is tracking them through the woods. In the night, there are more strange sounds and the tent begins to quake, driving them out. When they return, their belongings have been rifled through, and Josh’s recording equipment has been damaged. The next day, despite keeping a southern course for 15 hours, the find themselves back at a log crossing a creek they’d already passed, and their frustration and desperation increases. The next morning, Heather and Mike cannot find Josh, and eventually are forced to go on without him. That night they think they hear him in the woods, and in the morning Heather finds a bundle of twigs wrapped in the bloody tatters of Josh’s shirt. She freaks out, but hides her discovery from Mike. That night, alone, she records herself apologizing to her parents and those of her crew, and takes the blame for everything that has happened, certain she and Mike will die in the woods. They hear Josh again and follow his cries to a house in the middle of the woods. As they search, Mike thinks he hears Josh downstairs and runs there with a camera, finding odd writing on the walls. As he walks, there’s a thumping sound and the camera falls. The footage begins again, Heather screaming, until we see Mike standing with his face against the wall. There is another scream. The camera falls to the floor. And the screen goes black.

Thoughts: The filming of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a moviemaking legend. With a mere $20,000, Myrick and Sanchez took three unknown actors into the woods and made a movie that was largely improvised, giving them notes about what to feel or how to behave rather than being strict about the lines they spoke, and often not even telling the actors what they were going to do to scare them, trying to capture a realistic feeling to their reactions. The resulting film made nearly $250 million, making it by far one of the most profitable movies of all time. The film is also notable for being one of the first – if not the first – movie marketed heavily on the Internet. A web page was established that went viral on the conceit that the film was real, with lots of articles, videos and photographs presented to support the film’s premise.

You can really track the legacy of this movie in two ways, neither of them having anything to do with the weak sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Although the film did not create the “found footage” genre – the idea that you’re watching a movie constructed of footage filmed by the characters themselves – it sure as hell made it popular. As is always the case, some of the movies that have used this concept in the years since have been critical successes, some have been commercial successes, and some have been outright flops. But unlike most other films that spawn a rash of imitators, only Blair Witch can lay claim to creating a subgenre that is immediately repulsive to anybody who gets seasick easily.

The second – and, to my way of thinking, more important – legacy of this movie the way it change how movies are marketed. In 1999, the Internet was still relatively new to most people, and nobody quite understood yet the power it would one day have. The Blair Witch website, combined with a few other tie-ins like a Sci-Fi Channel special and a comic book from Oni Press, turned a movie made on a microscopic budget into an international sensation. Now, it would be insane to make a movie that doesn’t have a website, it would be ludicrous to not create viral content that fans can find, enjoy, and share with other people in the hopes of generating new fans. If you were on Facebook earlier today, watching the trailers for The Muppets, try to wrap your brain around the fact that such a presentation has its origin in The Blair Witch Project.

In terms of what actually makes it scary, I don’t think it’s the supernatural elements that do the trick. Yeah, the piles of rocks, the little twig-construction stick figures and the other weird things they find in the woods all help contribute to a culture of fear that exists in the film. What makes it work, though, is the way the characters slowly break down. When the movie begins they’re lively and enthusiastic about making their movie. As the film progresses, they get antsy, they get belligerent, and they begin to turn on each other. The suspicion that infects them, the way their little society completely falls apart after a while is pretty scary by itself, because that could happen to anybody. Strip away the witch, take away the manufactured scares, and look at it just as a story about people crumbling just because they’re lost and scared. And it works. Heather’s breakdown near the end has joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scenes for very good reason.

The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of crap today. Like many things which reach enormous popularity very quickly, there was a backlash afterwards by those who feel like it’s uncool to like anything mainstream, and a bit more by those who didn’t care for the style of filmmaking. (Out of the two, the second is by far the more legitimate complaint.) People complain that they feel like they’re watching somebody’s home movies – which, of course, is part of the point. My favorite argument, though, is those who were angry that we never see the witch. My response to this is simple: what could they possibly have shown you that would be scary enough to match what you built up in your own mind?

And of course, there are also many people who react because the whole “found footage” thing has been overdone. Again, this is legitimate – the third Paranormal Activity movie using the same concept just hit theaters as I write this, and frankly I haven’t found them to be remotely frightening – but I think it’s unfair to put the blame for that on Blair Witch. It’s not the fault of this movie that others copied it badly, and as far as this one goes, I think it does what it does very well. I watch this today and get the creeps just as easily as I did back in college. And to me, that’s what makes a movie memorable.

Tomorrow the first stage of Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen (yes, first stage) reaches its conclusion with the most recent film to change the way horror movies are made… so far. We’re going to take a look at Saw.