Humor in horror movies is a tricky thing. It’s a great tension-reliever, but too much, too often, and you end up watching a “spoof.” (Spoof = lame). Director Scott Glosserman strikes a judicious balance of horror and haha in Behind the Mask, a faux documentary that follows a film crew of college students shadowing a wannabe serial killer.

As Leslie, the cheerful, upbeat (but very focused) killer, Nathan Baesel brings vast amounts of nuance to a role that could have been a corny caricature. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Rob Lowe’s character in Parks & Recreation, a most amiable and chatty fellow. He is by turns funny, cunning, weird, and frightening as a man who has chosen to do battle against the forces of good. (“There can’t be good without evil,” he explains.) The lion’s share of the film reveals Leslie’s detailed preparations as he stalks his victim, a pretty waitress named Taylor (Angela Goethals). The real hook is that Leslie takes great pains to debunk the supernatural aspects of cinematic serial killers like Jason Voorhies, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. He trains relentlessly, studies the disappearing tricks of Houdini, practices yoga, and gets sage advice from Eugene (the always-great Scott Wilson), a retired killer who lives next door.

It’s a smart film and no one behaves in predictable fashion—unless it’s part of the stalking-and-killing ritual. Small parts featuring Robert Englund as Leslie’s “Ahab,” Dr. Halloran (a ringer for Donald Pleasance in Halloween), and tiny Zelda Rubenstein as the librarian with a red herring, add to the fun.

Behind the Mask is a highly ambitious little movie and for the most part, succeeds admirably.

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