Dir. Jamie Blanks
After several deaths and disappearances of fellow students, Natalie (Alicia Witt) begins to suspect that a brutal psychopathic killer is offing the campus populace in grisly ways inspired by old urban legends. Trouble is, no one believes her. Teaming up with best gal-pal Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart) and roving student reporter Paul (Jared Leto), she sets out to reveal who the killer is and stop them before its too late… but wait! Who’s that over there? Hello? Hello?? *wonders off alone to investigate a strange noise*
An urban legend is a form of modern folklore, usually passed on by word of mouth concerning an event believed by the teller to be true. They are stories that act as cautionary morality tales that vary over time, and usually carry some significance for the particular communities that propagate them. The premise of Urban Legend - that various students are being murdered in a manner that echoes the style of notorious urban legends/folktales - is one that was merely touched on by various horror titles in the past; none had ever adopted this as their raison d’être in quite the same way Urban Legend has. The most famous instances where urban legends were briefly used in other horror movie plots are of course When a Stranger Calls and Black Christmas. Both of these taut, compelling films used the tale of the young babysitter being menaced by a prank caller, whose calls are later revealed to be coming from inside the house, to chilling effect: the former in an extended prologue, the latter as the grisly shock twist.
Urban Legend is pure Eighties slasher goodness in everything but the decade in which it was made. One of the many slasher movies produced in the imposing wake of Scream – and like that film before it, also hinged on an intriguing murder mystery - was also one of the few to successfully negate the overtly nudge-wink approach adopted by Kevin Williamson. Indeed, it is one of the few slashers from this era that had no connection to that writer whatsoever. While there are one or two moments of self-referentialism, these relate more to the actors, not the characters or their familiarity with horror movie conventions. Speaking of which – slasher fan Blanks (Long Weekend, Valentine) obviously knows these conventions inside out, because he sticks to them like flypaper, never once veering into uncharted territory.
Urban Legend comprises of a number of well constructed and suspenseful scenes, and is a film built around convoluted set-pieces. But what set pieces! And because it is all done so with such aplomb it will prove absolutely irresistible to slasher fans; not least the bravura opening in which a young woman who stops at a spooky gas station only to realise too late that the danger she’s in doesn’t come from the stuttering, creepy gas attendant (Brad Dourif) who seems intent on luring her out of the car, but from the parka-clad killer already lurking in the back seat.
Director Blanks over-relies on shock jumps and Silvio Horta’s screenplay fills up with red-herrings, including spooky janitors and menacing professors (Robert Englund) just in case the rudimentary murder mystery isn’t enough to keep viewers on their toes. Despite the lurid appeal, the film is actually one of the more bloodless slashers of the time, Blanks preferring to rely on building atmosphere and racking up the tension, than indulging in gore. The young cast all do a fine job and inject a bit of life into their mainly two-dimensional characters – particularly the brilliant Alicia Witt whose performance elevates her character Natalie above and beyond the usual slasher fodder histrionics. Also on top form is Jared Leto, who manages to make his selfish tabloid-hack student journalist Paul rather likeable.
The striking looking killer cuts an imposing figure; the parka lending them a ‘hip’, gritty, and well, I guess ‘urban’ edginess. Adopting a purposeful stride more akin to Michael Myers, than the flailing, maniacal jumpiness of Scream’s Ghostface, this is one calculating, determined and vicious thug. Who is, of course, revealed to be avenging a past misdeed, as many great slasher villains are.
Urban Legend is a charmingly old fashioned, straight-laced slasher that was as much a cut above the others of its era, as it has been date-stamped and defined by that era.