Urban Legend (1998)
Urban legends in general are quite fascinating to me. I’ve spent many late night hours reading through whole websites dedicated to these modern day myths, and they are a fertile ground for an imaginative horror movie. Of course, this movie came out in the wake of Scream and does a lot to follow in that style. Unfortunately, it was an extreme rarity that any of those types of trend cash-ins were any good. I clearly remember seeing this on opening weekend and regarding it as not scary at all. In no way do I expect that sentiment to change after fifteen years. I’m reviewing this because it was high time I got back to some very critical reviewing, and nothing’s better than a disappointing post-modern slasher film for that task!
When New England college student Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders seemingly inspired by urban legends. Natalie and her friends are all involved in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund). Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall 25 years ago. As the fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, and Natalie’s friends fall victim to this axe wielding murderer, she discovers that she is the focus of the crazed killer’s intentions in the ultimate urban legend – the story of her own horrific murder.
This is not a badly made movie. It has respectable, polished production values and top notch gore effects. Cinematography is wholly competent with solid compositions and smart camera moves punctuating the dramatic moments. The editing is mostly great, side from the gimmicky flash cuts. So, I think the problem with the effectiveness of this movie is that these urban legends are so terribly familiar to us that the movie becomes damn predictable. There’s little tension or suspense when you know how the kills are supposed to be plotted out. While playing them out verbatim perfectly fits in with the killer’s ultimate motives, creatively, it would have been more effective to put a fresh twist on them. Have them play out not exactly as you would expect them to, but still be evocative of the classic tales. Of course, the various false jump scares don’t help matters either.
The red herrings we get as to the identity of the killer are also quite underwhelming. They are dashed about as quickly as they are brought up. This sort of thing worked better in Scream where no one was ever entirely absolved of potential guilt in the eyes of the audience. Everyone was an equally viable suspect, but here, the suspects are not very credible nor are they main characters. They show up for two or three scenes total. The main characters are not implicated as the potential killer, and that evaporates a lot of heightened tension and paranoia that could have existed in the movie. As it is, there’s not much focus put on who the killer is, but more the methods that this killer uses.
And one last negative critique would be that the look of the killer is not all that intimidating. A relatively small statured person in a hooded parka leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of chilling imagery. All the great, iconic slashers have not only a instantly recognizable, unmistakable look to them, but they also have a distinct personality in how they move and act. This slasher, which doesn’t even have a name to its credit, comes off entirely generic with no distinct personality in its movements. This takes away a lot of the menace this killer could have had, and thus, further adds to the lack of effective horror in this movie. While Ghostface was a different person in each Scream movie, the image of Ghostface was iconic and carried a strong weight of horror with him. The Urban Legend slasher is just terribly forgettable. If this killer wasn’t wielding an axe, you wouldn’t feel any serious imposing threat from him/her at all. I think my critiques hold weight with the makers of the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut since they entirely revamped the look of their killer.
Still, the film has a few exciting sequences such as when the killer is chasing Tara Reid’s Sasha. It’s fairly intense and suspenseful as Sasha tries to evade this axe wielding maniac. Shortly thereafter, the climactic chase sequence in the storming rain is pretty good with some good tension and strenuous physicality for Alicia Witt. Proving my point, this is when the killer turns away from urban legend themed kills, and just starts going after people full boar. These are the scenes that work because they’re not so predictable. They keep an audience more on edge in the midst of random peril. They’re surely not wholly original inventions in the slasher genre, but they are staples of it because they are effective. So, it is that final 20-30 minutes which actually become intense and suspenseful, but for a 100 minute horror movie, that’s not very adequate.
On the acting end of things, Alicia Witt delivers a solid leading performance making Natalie sweet, vulnerable, smart, and tough. I like when she punches Joshua Jackson’s Damon Brooks right in the face after a bad come-on in a parked car showing there’s some assertiveness in her. Witt is a strong actress with a lot of talent to her credit. Plus, she’s a beautiful redhead, and I absolutely adore redheads. Jared Leto has a decent performance here as college newspaper reporter Paul Gardner, but his character just doesn’t have much personality on the page to speak of. Paul’s constantly trying to pry information out of everyone for his news story, but he doesn’t come off as the least bit imposing or ethically objectionable as that statement would suggest. Rebecca Gayheart is a fine talent working well as Natalie’s best friend Brenda, but offering little more, initially, than the qualities of the supportive friend. The latter end of the film gives her a lot more juicy material to work with that she really sinks her teeth into, and does an excellent job with.
Now. Michael Rosenbaum is plain awesome. After seeing him for so many years as Lex Luthor on Smallville it’s great seeing his comedic charisma in full swing here as the fun loving Parker. He’s charged up with energy and personality to spare, but Rosenbaum has enough charm to shy it away from becoming obnoxious. Tara Reid has a great promiscuous role as the saucy, sexually charged radio talk show host Sasha. Halloween franchise alumnus Danielle Harris clocks in as Natalie’s Goth roommate Tosh. It’s a good minor performance, and she looks quite hot in all that black garb.
Urban Legend features some notable horror legends in Robert Englund and Brad Dourif. Both of which put in solid performances. Dourif portrays a stuttering gas station attendant at the film’s start, and he’s sufficiently creepy. Englund gives Professor Wexler plenty of dignity and a little bit of theatrical edge for a strong, respectable performance. Both actors put a good measure of enthusiasm and quality into their roles here, and are small highlights that gave this film particular notoriety upon release.
The film’s score is provided by Christopher Young, who also did the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and last year’s highly effective horror film Sinister. Here, he does a far more understated but still admirable job. It has plenty of strong, tense cues throughout, and is probably a notch above the standard slasher film fare.
Now, I do really like the dark, shameful secret that Natalie has in her past, and how it ties into the motivation of the killer. It is all smartly and realistically put together. It makes for a nice twist in the climax that does get setup from Natalie’s story earlier on. The climax itself is pretty decent and typical for a slasher movie, but it’s surely far from terrible. It delivers some satisfaction, but it’s nothing that will stick with you like the endings of Halloween or Friday The 13th. The somewhat quirky coda fits for the movie, but also, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It could’ve used a better resolution that was more pertinent to the actual characters and story. It kind of goes with the half-baked feeling of the movie. It had good ideas, but just didn’t do anything worthwhile with them.
Ultimately, this is a real disappointment of a slasher film that just isn’t scary at all. They had a very talented cast to work with, and a premise that could’ve worked very well if it injected some original thinking into it. Instead, it just comes off as generic and predictable. The killer is entirely forgettable, and offers no menace or threatening presence. Director Jamie Blanks does a respectable job with Urban Legend, but the script is just devoid of ambition. He handles his cast exceptionally well, knows how to shoot a film very cinematically, and shows some talent for suspense. Yet, the film fails because the script uses a gimmick purely at face value without trying to add anything fresh or innovative to it. A killer offing people using urban legends is a clever idea, but screenwriter Silvio Horta progressed it no further than that. I know Jamie Blanks can make a good slasher movie because he did it with his next film Valentine, which I think is quite underappreciated. Given a stronger script, he can certainly deliver a much more effective product. It certainly won’t hurt you to watch Urban Legend, but it’s nothing special you’re missing out on. It did spawn two sequels that really were rather horrible that I would strongly advise avoiding. I saw them each once, and that was more than enough for me. This film is decent enough if you just need a mild way to kill 100 minutes. It likely won’t make you cringe, depending on your slasher film tastes, but it likely won’t excite you either.