“The idea of an urban legend serial killer? That’s kind of a stretch,” notes one of the characters in this Scream derivative, which may be a self-reflexive way to absolve the filmmakers of blame for the concept. Actually, it’s not a bad concept in that serial killers are the stuff of urban legends. Further, a good horror movie can be even more effective than an urban legend in propagating a cautionary tale about the stuff lurking in the shadows. If Scream and Scream 2 hadn’t milked that post-modern angle first, it might seem like a novel idea, too.
So in the wake of Wes Craven’s and Kevin Williamson’s tales of kids whose frame of reference for interacting with the world has been changed by horror movies comes Urban Legend, which likes to think that “urban legends” (in this film, they’re mainly scary campfire-style folk tales) have a similar grip on the popular imagination. In a Scream-style prologue that kick-starts the proceedings on a portentously deserted New England country road, Natasha Gregson-Wagner (late of Two Girls and a Guy) is singing along with Bonnie Tyler on her car stereo one minute and taking an axe in the neck the next. If you’re paying attention, you’ll note that her killing echoes one of those familiar grisly stories that someone always swears is true, but can never be verified. (I’d like to think she was slain for her excruciating taste in pop songs, but I’m not sure a close reading of the film supports that interpretation.)
Of course, the murders don’t stop there. And of course, they all revolve around a pretty young college student, name of Natalie (Alicia Witt). No dummy, Natalie figures out pretty quickly that some psycho is reenacting the fanciful murders that are the stuff of enduring urban legend. But who could be staging this sanguinary performance art for her benefit? Is it Pulitzer-sniffing college journalist Paul (Jared Leto)? Is it bitchy goth roomate Tosh (Danielle Harris)? Or could it be the weirdo professor who teaches the American folklore class (Robert Englund of Freddy Krueger fame)? And what about that janitor (Julian Richings) who looks like a cross between Emo Phillips and John Cale? Could he possibly be kosher?
Uninspired but luridly entertaining, Urban Legend‘s screenplay (by 1996 NYU grad Silvio Horta) could be included in a textbook on 1980s slasher movies. The fact that it was made in 1998 only shows how far the horror genre has failed to advance in the intervening years. As a horror movie fan, I’ve got to note that the formula isn’t completely unpleasurable, especially when it’s acted out by a cast as superficially appealing as the one on display here. Red herrings abound, and the obligatory unmasking of the real culprit — who really goes to town with the role in the film’s final reel — is actually more satisfying, in a goofy horror-flick way, than in either of the Scream films.
There are no real scares on the way to that revelation, although a couple of the murders are gruesomely visceral. Credit first-time director Jamie Blanks with a natural talent that may manifest itself in more ambitious projects — despite the flick’s fundamental flaws, it’s a breeze to watch. Most effective are the spare glimpses of the picture’s campus setting (somewhere in Toronto, according to the credits), which is forbidding and even a little gothic in tone. Cinematographer James Chressanthis is good to the locations as well as to the performers, and the movie’s been art- directed within an inch of its life by Charles E. Breen (The Crow: City of Angels, Your Friends and Neighbors), who seems to be the guy to call if you want to make a movie look really good on a budget.
Performances vary in quality, and since the characters have been written as a bunch of attractive, generic fair-skinned kids in the style of a TV show, there’s only so much to be done with the roles. The 23-year-old Witt plays Natalie a hair smarter than your typical horror movie babe, with no sniveling whatsoever and only a couple of really stupid moves. Rebecca Gayheart, previously known as “the Noxzema girl” after her commercial work, is relentlessly pert and consistently uneven. Joshua Jackson is wryly amusing as a mercenary practical joker who takes advantage of tragedy to put the moves on Natalie. Jared Leto makes a bright-eyed crusading reporter, and Tara Reid (the kidnapped Bunny from The Big Lebowski) is demonstrably (and uninterestingly) vacuous as Sasha, host of a campus sex-talk radio show. Also on-hand are John Neville as the dean, Loretta Devine as a Pam Grier-inspired security guard, and genre pro Brad Dourif as a stuttering gas station attendant. At various moments during the film, all of them could be the killer.
Tastier and more colorful than dreck like Disturbing Behavior, Urban Legend still bottoms out when it hits frequent rough spots in the script. First off, the film’s concept is deployed clumsily, with little feeling for how creepy stalker stories can really be, little respect for how ingeniously grisly some of the most famous “legends” really are, and a complete failure to telegraph the dread inherent in Natalie’s realization that a creative killer is stalking her. (I keep thinking Hitchcock might have turned this into something.) Also missing is an ability to play by the rules where creative misdirection is concerned (the hooded coat worn by the real killer pops up in nearly everyone’s wardrobe) or to stage a convincing chase scene (these kids take the elevator up when you know damn well they should be going down, etc.). Finally, it just can’t pace itself — instead of building to a clever or outrageous climax, it keeps borrowing ideas and finishes up by pointing fingers at one could-be killer after another. Horror fans, and those of us too young to have experienced the slasher cycle the first time around, may have a pretty good time just watching it all unspool. Nobody else will find much to care about.
Directed by Jamie Blanks
Written by Silvio Horta
Cinematography by James Cressanthis
Starring Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, and Jared Leto
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)