As with a full-fledged horror movie, a horror-based comedy doesn’t quite need to reinvent the wheel. It merely needs to appeal to horror nerds and comedy fans alike — a shockingly delicate balancing act to maintain. Look at perhaps the most famous examples of the genre: the Scary Movie franchise. To the creators of the Scary Movies, merely pointing out obvious horror benchmarks is high comedy. It doesn’t appeal to a majority of horror nerds, because it simply puts the genre’s conventions on display, and points at them, asking us, “yeah, isn’t that stupid?”
Many of these conventions are stupid, yes, but we don’t need a lame-duck parody to tell us that. A smarter movie points out similar conventions, but respects the genre enough to overthink them. That’s why Shaun of the Dead was such a runaway success, and that’s why Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask, a self-aware origin story for an up-and-coming horror villain, works so perfectly.
It’s a simple, effective plot device: affable slasher Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel, who this film would have catapulted to stardom were there any justice in this world) just wants to pursue his passion for serial killing. He longs to be mentioned in the same hallowed breath as the Freddys, Michaels, and Jasons of this world, and so he allows a crew of documentarians (led by Angela Goethals, also excellent) to follow him around as he painstakingly creates his bloody masterpiece. Through the magic of a fresh perspective, we see the events of a horror movie unfold from the other side of the funhouse mirror; it’s a neat little trick to making a film feel new and exciting.
Behind the Mask understands horror conventions so perfectly, in fact, that it manages to scare even while lovingly poking fun at them. This is why, even with the comedic tone, it’s located in the Horror section of your local video rental establishment. Vernon maps out his every move, deconstructing the beat-by-beat predictability of the genre, and yet we feel the familiar chill of fright when he scampers in and out of frame. Even the masterpiece he spends the entire film setting up — an all-too-familiar jumble of teen slasher caricatures assembled to be murdered — feels creepy, making excellent use of a deserted farmhouse and a fog-bathed apple grove. Vernon himself, as played by Baesel, is an amicable psychopath, capable of switching on a dime from genial tour guide to rabid psychotic — indeed, one of the film’s most cunning inspirations is the brutal classic Man Bites Dog (in which a charismatic murderer is followed by a camera team as he kills for kicks).
But Behind the Mask works precisely because the filmmakers understand the horror genre. Even when it turns from a facetious horror flick to a legitimate one in its final reel, Behind the Mask pulls the rug out on several occasions, even offering a predictable but gloriously-filmed post-credits denoument. For respecting the genre as ably as it pokes gentle fun at it, Behind the Mask is a modern classic.
Extra Credit: Look no further than the aforementioned Shaun of the Dead for another film that brings the funny even while respecting its subject matter; the one-liners are priceless, but the blood-soaked dismemberments are straight out of Romero’s classic playbook.