Review: Urban Legend

Uptight university student Alicia Witt comes to believe that someone on campus is murdering people with urban legends as an M.O. However, authorities claim the killings are suicides and an incident from Witt’s past allows her to be discredited. Witt tries to convince people that a killer is stalking them, as the bodies start piling up. Jared Leto is the resident journalism major, the only one even remotely willing to listen to her. Rebecca Gayheart is her best friend, Michael Rosenbaum is the resident cynic, Joshua Jackson the jokester, Tara Reid the college radio sex show DJ, and Danielle Harris is the token freaky Goth, Witt’s unfriendly roommate. For the older set, Robert Englund is the Mythology professor whom Witt thinks might be a prime suspect, John Neville is the college Dean, and Loretta Devine is the excitable security guard, an unabashed Pam Grier fan. Natasha Gregson-Wagner appears early as the first victim, supposedly in the vein of Drew Barrymore in “Scream” or Janet Leigh in “Psycho” (Problem? In 2018, hardly anyone remembers Gregson-Wagner, so her ‘famous actress who dies early’ casting is rendered moronic and dated). Brad Dourif plays a stuttering, creepy gas station attendant, also in the first scene.

Although better than the “I Know What You Did What You Done Went and Did” flicks, it was around the point of seeing this 1998 teen horror pic from Aussie Jamie Blanks (“Valentine”, “Storm Warning”) that I began to feel depressed about the direction cinematic horror was taking. It’s not an awful film, but it’s still way too sanitised and free of exploitation goodies to be truly worthwhile as a horror film. Not every horror film needs to be gory (even “Halloween” was pretty tame), but these films from the “Scream” era were clearly ‘cleaned-up’ to play to teens in multiplex cinemas, not because of any artistic reason. Violence and sex were eschewed in favour of laughs, drugs, and self-aware hipness. And it only got worse after this film, which was at least rated R in the US, most horror films (and action films for that matter) from the US released in the decade after this, aimed for a PG-13 rating. That’s why everyone seems to think horror films are too violent these days, because the 90s and early 00s were populated by watered-down crap. Worst of all, few if any of these films were remotely scary, and that includes this one, which like most of the others, is populated by familiar faces from TV shows and teen flicks from the period (Jackson, Rosenbaum, Gayheart, Leto, Reid, etc.), with a few traditional genre veterans sprinkled throughout as well (Neville, Englund, Harris, Dourif).

The big problem is that, “Scream”, fine film that it is, kinda ruined it for the subsequent films by playing things for laughs, making it hard for serious but clichéd horror films to follow. At least “Urban Legend” tries to ape the meta-movie approach of “Scream” to a certain extent, and the best I can say for it is that it’s one of the better post-“Scream” teen horror films, but it’s only really with a decade or two of hindsight that I can say that. I can also say that it’s a good-looking and occasionally amusing film, but an ultimately tepid and flat one.

The horror here is too reliant on ‘boo!’ scares that are entirely botched by a poor build-up every time, and there’s just too many of them. Compare this with something like the underrated “Signs”, where you felt like some kind of freaky shit was gonna come at any given moment, thanks to the unbearable tension and terrific camera placement. “Signs” made agonisingly effective use of cornfields as a source of concealment and claustrophobia, whilst Blanks uses them as a means to an end. Debut director Blanks shows in this and the subsequent (and awful) “Valentine”, he’s simply not a strong director of horror, he has no idea about tension. That said, the opening scene is bloody good, and the cinematography and lighting by James Chressanthis (who went on to two Jennifer Love Hewitt TV shows “Ghost Whisperer” and “The Client List”) is awfully impressive throughout. The man knows what to do with light, darkness and shadow, even if Blanks doesn’t quite utilise the man’s skills.

Loretta Devine’s Pam Grier-obsessed security guard is an absolute riot, and in my view, deserved her own damn spinoff. I like both Rosenbaum (though hair does not suit him) and Jackson for the most part, but here they both seem to be serving as the wise-arse, and should’ve been melded into one character. I’d give Jackson the character, since he has less range as an actor than Rosenbaum who could’ve played a different role easily. ****SPOILER ALERT**** However, I’m not sold on Harris’ death, intended to be a darkly comic joke but I thought it was just freaking stupid and unbelievable. I also think Blanks misses a big opportunity by not making her the killer. She’s playing a dark, disturbed character who takes lithium and Harris previously played by Michael Myers’ niece. It would’ve been awesome casting in my view. Much more effective is Neville’s death, but because this was the late 90s, we don’t really get to see enough of it. Reid’s death could’ve been awesome, especially as it involves darkness- always an effective tool if properly used- but it’s too rushed, not building enough tension to work. The pool scene is worst of all, it’s flat and disappointing with not enough built-up tension. Mr. Blanks ought to watch the classic 1940s chiller “Cat People” to see how to do that scene right, it was done unnervingly there. ****END SPOILER****

As amusing as this film sometimes is, the self-aware characters in this film tend to grate after a while, so you end up not caring. Reid in particular is annoyingly self-conscious (and only got worse as an actress), and all I’ll say about the person playing the killer is that they are so incompetent that they draw attention to their guilt from their first scene to their last. So unbelievably bad is this person that it’s amazing they weren’t fired by the director. It’s only amplified when they reveal themselves and start raving like a loon. The performance becomes eye-rollingly bad and actually kinda embarrassing, to be honest. Whether this is all the performer’s fault or the result of bad direction, I cannot say though the person in question does have poor form. Speaking of embarrassing, did we really need the creepy janitor red herring? I mean is there a creakier, more overused character in horror cinema? I think several “Scooby-Doo” episodes actually featured such an overused staple. Oh, and whilst Blanks brings together actors from “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Halloween”, and “Child’s Play”, he never quite gives any of the actors (Englund, Dourif, and Harris) their due aside from Englund, with Dourif going uncredited. A missed opportunity, in my book.

My other big gripe with the film is the urban legends themselves. I don’t know about you, but I know what an urban legend is, yet I’ve never heard of any of these urban legends before in my life. The kidney removal thing, of course, has cropped up in films since then, and yes I’ve heard the story of the creepy phone caller who turns out to be inside the house- but that’s because it’s not an urban legend, it’s stolen from 1975’s excellent “Black Christmas”. Am I the only one who was unfamiliar with these supposedly well-known urban legends? It took me out of the film because I just didn’t think every single person would know all of them. Meanwhile, the ending is lame, predictable and frankly, somewhat arbitrary. Anyone could’ve been the killer (with the exception of one character who is an obvious red herring).

I guess this earns points for being one of the least sucky of the late 90s teen horror cycle, but it is awfully tame and ineffectual. Way too Carpenter-esque score by the usually excellent Christopher Young (“Drag Me to Hell”, “Flowers in the Attic”, “Hellraiser”), doesn’t help. Also, a curse on whoever thought it was a bright idea to include “Zoot Suit Riot” on the soundtrack, one of the worst songs of all-time. Why would that song be playing at a frat party anyway? Isn’t it kind of a jazz throwback? Would cool young people listen to it? I doubt it, but then I’m not, never was, never will be cool. Scripted by Silvio Horta (best known now for being one of the people responsible for TV’s “Ugly Betty”), also a debutante.

Rating: C+


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