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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 27: Poltergeist (1982)

poltergeistDirector: Tobe Hooper

Writers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen

Plot: The film begins simply enough, with a television playing the national anthem and going to static (reminding us of those quaint days when television stations actually went off the air). As her father Steven (Craig T. Nelson) sleeps in front of the TV, little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) wakes up, walks to the flickering TV, and begins to speak to it. The next day, the family’s pet bird dies, and mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is forced by Carol Anne to give it a proper cigar box funeral. The older children, Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) are nonplussed by the loss of the bird. Robbie is, however, disturbed by the gnarled tree outside his bedroom window. The next night, when a storm scares Carol Anne and Robbie into their parents’ bed, the static appears on the television and again summons Carol Anne. This time, a spectral hand reaches out of the screen and rattles the room, waking up the Freelings and prompting one of the most famous lines in scary movie history: Carol Anne’s, “Theeeeeey’re here!”

The next day, Diane begins to notice strange phenomena around the house, such as a spot on the kitchen floor that sends objects sliding across the room. The fun evaporates, though, when Robbie’s gnarled tree comes to life and snatches him. As Steven and Diane try to save their son, the closet blows open with an intense white light, and little Carol Anne is sucked in and vanishes. After a frantic search for the girl, the family hears her voice coming from the television set. Steven turns to a group of paranormal investigators for help. The investigators: Ryan (Richard Lawson), Marty (Martin Casella) and Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) find the children’s room in a state of chaos – the bed spinning, objects hurtling through the air, the closet glowing.

The investigators believe the events to be the work of a poltergeist instead of a traditional haunting, which means it could stop at any time and the missing Carol Anne – whose voice they keep hearing coming from… somewhere – could vanish forever. With a time limit, the family and investigators grow more desperate and begin conducting experiments to find the girl even as her disembodied voice cries for help. Steven discovers from his boss, real estate developer Mr. Teague (James Karen) their house was built on the remains of an old cemetery. They send the other children away and bring in a medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), who believes the spirits in the house are attracted to Carol Anne’s “light,” and thus are keeping her captive. There’s a demon, “the Beast,” using her to restrain the other spirits, who don’t realize they’re dead and flee the Light that would send them to the next world. Tangina proves that the portal in the closet eventually comes out in the Freelings’ living room, and Diane ties herself to a rope and plunges into the abyss to find her daughter. When he realizes Tangina is trying to use Carol Anne to force the demon into the light, Steven pulls on the rope and finds himself face-to-face with the Beast. With the creature distracted, Diane and Carol Anne fall free, and Tangina declares the house “clean.”

The family decides to move (because people just don’t have the guts to stand up to a supernatural infestation anymore). In their last night in the house, Diane is left alone with Robbie and Carol Anne. Robbie is attacked by a demonic clown doll and the Beast assaults Diane, preventing her from getting to the children. As the closet begins to transform, Diane rushes outside for help and falls into the muddy pit the family had dug for a swimming pool, only to find herself facing the rising corpses of the graveyard Steven’s company built over. Diane makes it back into the house and gets the children away from the closet, but the corpses – and their coffins – begin rising everywhere as Steven and Teague arrive. Dana gets back from her date just as the rest of the Freelings escape, and the house itself implodes in front of the whole neighborhood, disappearing in a flash of light. Exhausted, but together, the family checks into a hotel for the night… and Steven shoves the television out onto the balcony.

Thoughts: Like The Exorcist and, to a lesser degree, The Shining, Poltergeist makes childhood a target of the supernatural. That idea is something that comes back on us time and again over the years, and with good reason. Childhood is supposed to be the time of innocence, the time when we’re protected from the nasty things in the world by Mommy and Daddy. Even when you’re an adult, seeing a symbol of innocence corrupted by a monster can terrify you. The filmplays on our fears by tapping into a very normal situation – a standard suburban family – and throwing it into the grip of something horrible. And Hooper and Spielberg work hard to make this family as typical as possible, while still showing off a little geek cred – the younger Freelings’ bedroom is rife with posters for Sesame Street, Star Wars and Alien, there’s a Los Angeles Rams helmet in the corner, Nelson’s character reads a biography of new president Ronald Reagan, and so forth. This is a film that wears its early 80s time frame as a badge of honor. (There’s so much Star Wars, in fact, you’d suspect the producer was buds with George Lucas or something.)

Speaking of the producer, there are stories that Spielberg had a much heavier directorial influence than the filmmakers admitted (and, in fact, probably only skipped directing it himself because he was busy with E.T. at the time). Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the movie. Yes, technically it’s a supernatural horror flick, but the tone of the story and the quality and type of the special effects all fit in very neatly with the Spielberg sci-fi films of the time period. This movie doesn’t look like The Shining, it looks like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This isn’t a bad thing, though. So much horror – even great horror – tends to have a very similar flavor to it. It’s refreshing to see a Spielberg come in every once in a while and tell a ghost story that doesn’t feel exactly like every other ghost story out there.

That said, although the movie is a lot of fun, it’s fun in the way that a lot of 80s family adventures are: you watch the film, you think how awesomely authentic the portrayal of the children are, and you wish you could experience the cooler moments of the story. Granted, this movie doesn’t have as many moments a person would actually want to experience as, say, Goonies, but it’s hard today to find this PG-rated fright flick actually scary. In fact, it’s very much the kind of ghost story a parent could feel comfortable sharing with some children. (I’ve got to stress some children here – let’s face it, there are kids who get nightmares at the slightest provocation, and this movie would most definitely give them that provocation. But if you’ve got a slightly older child that has proven he or she can handle a little bit of a scare, this movie would be okay.)

Once the film does start going for more traditional scares, it can be a little cheesy. The scene with the maggots bursting from a raw steak isn’t bad, but a few seconds later when Marty starts peeling his face off, it’s terribly obvious that you’re looking at someone ripping make-up from a mannequin head – the hands clutching at the face don’t even look like they’re coming from the proper angle. It jerks you out of it. Later on, when Robbie gets attacked by the Clown doll, it’s really effective – Hooper got a nice fake-out by making you expect to see something under the bed. But that doesn’t make the doll itself less cheesy. Other scenes seem to want to mine a little bit of comedy – when Steven’s boss visits him to find out why he hasn’t been coming to work, Steve’s efforts to prevent him from noticing the ghostly goings-on are a little funnier than they probably need to be.

It’s the last third of the film that’s the scariest and the most effective. Once Tangina enters the picture, the intensity increases significantly and you start to fear for the rest of the family, the child, and the investigators throughout the house. Tangina’s actually a magnificent creation – she’s  Yoda with a southern accent, (ah – Star Wars again) making Steven and Diane do whatever they need to do to get their daughter back, up to and including threatening her, growing angry with her, and manipulating her into laying a trap for the Beast. She’s an awesome character that helps the film work, serving the same function as Father Merrin in The Exorcist (in fact, many of the scenes where the parents and investigators try to tap into the spirit world evoke a much more special-effects heavy version of The Exorcist). She’s the Mentor, even if she’s a Mentor who doesn’t show up until late in the game, and she brings just the right touch of awesome to make the movie work. The climax – except for the clown doll – is also great. The corpses bubbling up out of the pool are creepy as hell, the telescoping hallway adds to the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that Diane has to defeat, and the effects on the gaping maw of the closet… scary stuff. We’re getting into Spielberg-Gremlins here. (And in fact, some of the fleshy appearance of the portal is very similar to what Spielberg and Chris Columbus would do in that other little monster movie a couple of years later.)

In the end, we still get the expected Spielberg feel-good ending, but that’s okay. This is a scary movie, but not in the same vein as most of the others we’ve watched. This is a chill for everyone, something that parents and kids can watch and both hold on to each other a little tighter.

From the warmth of the family to the cold of Antarctica – tomorrow we see the return of John Carpenter to this list with a sci-fi classic – his 1982 remake of The Thing.