Urban Legend (1998)
Directed by Jamie Blanks
Cast: Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Jared Leto, Tara Reid, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Joshua Jackson, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Danielle Harris, Robert Englund, John Neville, Julian Richings, Brad Dourif.
1998 100 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, brief sex, and mild gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 25, 1998.
Back in the early 1980s, there was a slasher movie craze, and it eventually burned out because the films simply weren't any good, reaching for the lowest-common-denominator in filmmaking. But then 1996's "Scream," a genre-shattering horror flick, suddenly revived the genre, and since then we have been bombarded with new horror movies, and the strange thing is, ever since then, they could be divided easily into two categories: the great ("Scream," "Scream 2," "I Know What You Did Last Summer") and the awful ("An American Werewolf in Paris," "Wishmaster," "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer"). Usually you can tell before you see one of these little fright items whether they are going to be worthwhile or not. And luckily, the new slasher film, "Urban Legend," directed by newcomer Jamie Blanks, fits in the former category: the great.
"Urban Legend" stars Alicia Witt (TV's "Cybill") as Natalie, a student of the fictional northeastern college Pendleton University, who becomes convinced after several dead bodies show up that a psychopathic killer is on the loose, murdering people in ways that are based on urban legends (i.e. an axe-wielding killer hiding in the backseat of your car, a babysitter receiving threatening phone calls that are coming from inside the house, etc.). Complicating the story even more is the myth that at the college 25 years ago, a murder spree took place, and the sole survivor was Mr. Wexler (Robert Englund), who, surprise!, is currently teaching the American Folklore class at Pendleton U.
As in the "Scream" movies, "Urban Legend" has a lot of fun toying with its audience on who the killer is: could it be Mr. Wexler; Paul (Jared Leto), a journalism major and potential boyfriend of Natalie; the school's janitor; or any number of the other students and staff. Regardless of this minor similarity to "Scream," "Urban Legend" is an original because of the extremely clever, ingenious storyline. Practically no popular legend is left unturned, and all of them are used to spooky effect.
There are many things that separate this from those 80's stalk-and-slash movies: the characters aren't all one-dimensional airheads, and the performances are from mostly talented up-and-coming actors; the writing is sharp and often funny, with many in-jokes and tributes to other movies, most noticeably "Halloween"; the killer's identity is, for most of the running time, unpredictable; and most importantly, it is actually scary, with many effective, suspenseful set-pieces. Two particular moments that are especially nerve-wracking is the opening scene, set at a gas station, and the other is set at a radio station. The picture runs at a brisk pace, and is consistently entertaining. The technical credits are superb, particularly the moody cinematography which casts the college as an ominous character of its own, and the down-beat music score by Christopher Young. Another plus is that there are very few songs in the movie, compared to other recent "hip" films aimed at young adults, and like some of the great genre works, like "Halloween" and "The Exorcist," it relies more on an instrumental scores.
If there is a negative thing about the resurgence of the horror genre, it is usually the climax, which reveals the killer's identity and then becomes an example of overacting, and loses its frightening grip. Not here. In "Urban Legend," the villain, whom will remain nameless, obviously has a lot of fun, and it becomes both menacing and strangely humorous. Oh, and one last thing that is worth mentioning: Loretta Devine, who plays the school's black security guard who is obsessed with Pam Grier and blaxploitation movies, is a standout, stealing every scene she's in. The same thing goes for Tara Reid (last seen in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski), as Sasha, Natalie's friend, and DJ at the college's radio station.
"Urban Legend" is one of the very best of the recent slasher offerings, because it mixes its laughs and chills with more smoothness and grace than usual, and it proves that just because it's a horror movie that includes people being murdered doesn't mean it still can't be intelligent and impressive filmmaking.
©1998 by Dustin Putman