In my head, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a beloved consensus highlight of 2000s meta-horror that is well understood to be an essential work for genre fans. And maybe that's how it works in the real world, since every review I read about it seems to contain the sentiment "this is such a great film, even though nobody has ever heard of it or seen it", and all those dozens and dozens of reviewers can't have stumbled upon the same microscopic, obscure gem just like that. On the other hand, if the film's cult had any sort of heft to it at all, than producer/director/co-writer Scott Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve would have more (any) impressive horror films to their name since Behind the Mask hit the festival circuit in 2006, and leading man Nathan Baesel would have more credits for acting than for working in post-production on reality television shows. The universe is just a cruel prick sometimes, and so, while the dipshits behind stuff like V/H/S have an entire self-reinforcing cottage industry going on for themselves, Glosserman and Stieve, nearly a decade on, have just this one terrific little pearl of a satiric horror-comedy to their name.

But at least they have that. At least we have that. Behind the Mask isn't perfect - it has a doozy of a formal complication baked right into the concept that might not ever have been resolvable in a truly elegant way - but you sit around waiting for a perfect horror film, you starve to death. And there's plenty of outright great material generously littered throughout the film, especially in its absolutely glorious first third, when it becomes the best extant version of the self-examining meta-horror film that had become so popular in the decade following Scream. The film takes place in a universe where Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddie Krueger have actually existed to do their killing in the small towns of Crystal Lake, Haddonfield, and Springwood, information communicated to us in a breathless TV news report that turns out to be the opening scene of a documentary being pieced together by Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), one-third of a team of graduate student documentary filmmakers (the others are Doug and Todd, played by Ben Pace and Britain Spellings in their limited onscreen appearances; I believe they are, respectively, the cinematographer and sound recordist). Their film is an investigation into the how of all these weirdly elaborate psycho killers who breed like rabbits in this universe, and to answer that question, Taylor has decided to go right to the source: Leslie Vernon (Baesel), who is building himself into the role of mysterious, possibly undead slasher monster for the little town of Glen Echo, Maryland.

The film shifts imperceptibly through two different phases in its first hour: the first part is an extravagantly funny and intelligent "behind the scenes" look into how all the contrivances and straight-up bullshit that go into making slasher movie plots actually involve a shitload of hard work and careful planning on the part of the psychos in question. Vernon is a proud nerd at heart, eager to show off his work, his research, bragging about how he's been carefully stalking his chosen Final Girl, Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson) - he prefers the term "Survivor Girl", which strikes me as the filmmakers being a little contrary just for the sake of it - making her paranoid without actually making her feel unsafe, planting clues about Glen Echo's mysterious (and partially fabricated) tragic history where he knows she'll find it, on top of doing things like working his ass off at cardio to make sure that he can run fast enough to do that "killer who only walks slowly is always just a few paces away" routine.

It's a film for and by people who understand the rules of the slasher movie very well, have some affection for the form, but also recognise that it's basically terrible. And having opened by complimenting those of us in that niche audience for our intelligence and sophistication, the film starts to get really interesting in its middle, and best third, when it ceases to be just one more post-Scream parody of slasher film tropes. Though, to be absolutely clear and absolutely fair, it is far more cutting and inventive in that vein than just about any film I've ever seen, certainly more than the Screams. Glosserman and Stieve have the knack for answering questions that we'd never think to ask, but once we see oh, that's how a psycho slasher killer would do THAT, it's clear and logical and easy to map onto the Jasons and Michaels and their numerous, less iconic brethren. Parts of Behind the Mask are just plain delightful in the way that a caper movie is delightful, as we see puzzle pieces coming into play in ways that are unpredictable and surprising and always, always rewarding.

That, anyway, is the superficial reason for loving the film. The deeper, frankly discomfiting reason, especially if you're a big slasher fan (and the movie relies on you being so, both to make its most impact and simply so that you get all the jokes), is that Behind the Mask rather craftily and invisibly turns itself around on the viewer through the form of its internal filmmakers, asking without voicing the words, "so anyway, why do you watch this shit?" There comes a point when Taylor... not exactly realises that she's filming the preparations of a terrifically friendly, funny geek who is, that night, going to murder at least seven teenagers, but more realises that she already realised it a little while ago. And then the film becomes explicitly about the ethics of filming a criminal act that the documentarian has the means to stop, but implicitly, and far more rewardingly, about the ethics of entertainment based in violent, elaborate death - something that, incidentally, Behind the Mask almost completely lacks. Only one of its fourteen actual or "what if?" deaths can be legitimately described as gory, and that's largely because it's paying off a silly one-off line about post-hole diggers from much earlier in the film.

I've seen the film three times now, and I'm still distinctly aware that I haven't unpacked everything going in on that middle chunk, as it implicates the viewer, and confounds its own status as a work of art. Vernon explains to an increasingly incredulous Taylor why all of the baroque elements of his work are necessary, how his entire focus is on empowering the Survivor Girl while also depriving her of her femininity, in terms that reek of medically outdated psychoanalytic lit theory, providing an intellectual spine for "doing slashers" that's plausible viewed from one angle, puffed-up double-talk from another; the film manages to discuss in easy, bite-sized form some of the weightier pro-horror arguments that have been offered and give them quite a bit of validation, and at the same time to make those arguments seem forced. "But aren't you really just excited to watch people die?" the film asks. "And don't you wonder if that kind of makes you a bad person?" There's even a gratuitous boob shot that's called out as gratuitous and then allowed to linger in a way that feels more self-aware and self-critical about male gazes than any other gratuitous boob shoot I've seen in a slasher movie.

The other important thing going on is that Behind the Mask really asserts itself not as a movie about the life of a slasher killer, but a movie about making a movie about a slasher killer. Between its 2006 premiere and its insultingly tiny 2007 theatrical release, the film came out too early to be consciously commenting on the "found footage" trend that exploded just a year later, though it's not really aping found footage to start with. Rather, when we see things through the camera's perspective, as we do for the great majority of the first hour, we're being put in the perspective of spectators of that footage - which is a dumb tautology, of course. Any time you watch a movie, you're a spectator of footage. But in Behind the Mask, there's not just documentary footage: the first scene, and a couple of moments dotted across the first hour, take place "outside" the documentary footage. And this makes the film different from virtually all found footage movies, where the entirety of the film takes place "within" the footage. The action of Behind the Mask takes place in a reality, and the film crew stands within that reality, filming it; when we then watch their footage, we're subtly being situated within that reality as well, since we know that the footage is a thing to be watched inside the film's universe, and we're watching the footage, and so it goes. And this makes us complicit with the film to a degree that we virtually never get to be with movies: not that we are present with the action and thus able to prevent, because that's just stupid. But because we become conspicuously aware that the footage has been made in order for us to watch it.

It's heady stuff, but it's also the direct cause of the film's greatest failure, and one that is completely inevitable. The peculiar effect of watching the footage as being separate from watching the movie only works because the film divides itself between "reality" and "filmed-reality"; but that exact same division cheapens the film. Every single time the movie shifts out of the camera's perspective into a more normal "horror movie" aesthetic (it's completely open about this, the lighting and video quality both dramatically change, and there's suddenly a musical score) it's jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. To me, anyway. And then we come to the last third, when Taylor, finally thrown into moral awakening, aware that abstracting this killer's actions through the lens of cinema has been a tool to remove herself from the ramifications of filming and watching those actions, announces that the documentary is over - and just like that, the documentary is over. The rest of the film plays out in the top-level reality of polished lighting, classical visual vocabulary, and ominous music. It moves through the third act of every single slasher on the books, and let me be frank, it moves through that act beautifully. As a conventional slasher film, the last third of Behind the Mask is really one of the best out there. But it's also a conventional slasher film.

I truly don't think there was a way to "solve" that, so I'm not harping on the filmmakers for not doing it. The end of Behind the Mask is a logical and inevitable extension of everything that was set up before: countless little Chekov guns fire off, and there's one piece of foreshadowing that pays off because it specifically wasn't mentioned, which is a really awesome way of teasing the viewer's genre savviness (I don't want to give away things, so I'm putting it in spoiler bars, in all his chatter about gender metaphors, Leslie conveniently fails to mention to Taylor that the increasingly masculine Final Girl tends to have an androgynous name, something Kelly lacks). But after the complexity, the wit, and the astonishing versatility of Baesel's performance, veering from giddy enthusiast to unexpected sorrow and introspection to dead-eyed menace, even a very good conventional slasher ending feels like it's letting all the air out of a movie that has been, till that point, one of the boldest examinations I know of what viewers demand of the narrative, of the characters, and of themselves as they watch horror movies. It has a fine ending, but nonetheless a disappointing one.

But then it goes ahead and resolves its plot during the end credits: not a little bonus, but an actual scene without which the narrative of the whole is, though satisfying, literally incomplete. And so, having once again bent the reality of "what is the 'actual' movie and what isn't?" one last time - and with a Talking Heads song, on top of it! - the film gets itself back in my good graces for its final bow.

Anyway, it's funny, it's legitimately tense, and it's smart as all hell, and it's one of my favorite American horror movies of the 21st Century. Not a lot of competition for that title, we all understand, but a damned impressive film anyway, and badly in need of a bigger fanbase and more love until that glorious day when it finally asserts its birthright as a modern horror classic.

Body Count: 10, three of whom are also seen in a theoretical "what if they died this way?" flashforward. Also one person who dies in the same theoretical flashforward, but not in "reality".