Urban Legend

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 friend 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 and 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 various 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 a love letter to Eighties slasher films. 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 - it 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 knowing self-referentialism, these relate more to the actors, not the characters or their familiarity with horror movie conventions. Speaking of which – director Blanks (Long Weekend, Valentine) obviously knows these conventions inside out, because he sticks to them like flypaper, never once veering into uncharted territory. But he does so with love and finesse.

Characters here do a fine job of making us believe they’ve never seen a horror film – they split up to search for a missing friend, investigate weird noises in the middle of nowhere, have a frat party to commemorate a previous massacre and indulge in the usual partying and pranking all the characters in the best 80s slasher movies did before them. Not that this is a bad thing of course, slasher movie fans garner much of their enjoyment from the predictable nature of these plots and the familiar characteristics utilised by them. They know what to expect, and Blanks knows how to deliver: this is a slick, thrilling slasher flick based on an intriguing premise, with a cool cast and buckets of suspense.

Urban Legend comprises of a number of well constructed and suspenseful scenes, and is a film built around 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 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 piles on shock jumps and Silvio Horta’s savvy screenplay fills up with red-herrings, including spooky janitors and menacing professors (Robert Englund) just in case the 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 cast all do a fine job and inject life into their characters – particularly the brilliant Alicia Witt whose performance elevates her character Natalie and ensures we root for her every step of the way. Also on top form is Jared Leto, who manages to make his selfish tabloid-hack student journalist Paul really quite likeable, and Loretta Devine as Reese, the brassy campus security officer with a love of Pam Grier and Seventies Blaxploitation movies. 

The striking killer cuts an imposing figure; the parka lending them a contemporary 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 psycho. Who is, of course, eventually revealed to be avenging a past misdeed, as many great slasher villains are. The reveal borders on the right side of camp, and even features a PowerPoint presentation amidst the frenzied histrionics. 

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. Recommended!

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