Horror screenwriters have always loved urban legends. The FRIDAY THE 13TH films are based on age old campfire tales of murderous lunatics in the woods. CANDYMAN is a reworking of the popular Bloody Mary story. Countless ghost and haunted house movies draw inspiration from “true” tales of haunting passed from generation to generation by oral tradition. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER and its sequels borrow equally from a regional Long Island myth about a vengeful fisherman and the classic “hook on Lover’s Lane” legend. WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is just an expanded version of a decades old piece of western folklore about a young girl menaced by telephone calls from a madman in an upstairs bedroom of the house where she is babysitting. In this age of mass communication and digital connectivity, when such stories are spread around the world via email, it was only a matter of time before an enterprising filmmaker would stumble upon the notion of crafting a script that incorporates a large number of popular urban legends into a single tale. Following the success of the SCREAM films in the 1990s, director Jamie Blanks (VALENTINE) and writer Sylvio Horta did just that. The result is a lively, clever teen slasher film titled, quite succinctly, URBAN LEGEND, one of the most underrated slice-and-dice films of the past two decades.
Before I proceed, I do owe the makers of this film a bit of an apology. For years, I’ve referred to it as URBAN LEGENDS, the plural form of the noun, but the title is actually singular. Though I’m certainly not alone in this mistake, as a critic I should try to get details like that right. Sorry, folks. It won’t happen again.
Critics of URBAN LEGEND denounce it as just another unremarkable teen horror programmer, but that criticism is unfair. Like SCREAM, this film has a witty, self-referential streak that separates it from the rest of the slasher pack. In addition to the tall tales used as inspiration for the film’s grisly, inventive killings, there are also many other bits of contemporary folklore referenced in the proceedings, including a tense “pop rocks and soda”, “Life Cereal’s Mikey” classroom scene and calls to a radio sex therapy show from hapless lovers living classic myths like the “birth control pills replaced with baby aspirin” and the “couple stuck together” stories. Moreover, the film doesn’t just use urban legends as the killer’s m.o.; it also stages many of these tales with very clever twists (the creepy gas station attendant trying to warn a patron that there’s a killer in the backseat stutters; the girl who finds her date lynched from a tree above their car actually causes his death by pulling the car, which the hanging rope is tied to, forward), and even uses a variation on a well-known legend to establish the murderer’s motive. This is a very well-researched, carefully constructed fright film.
The cast is truly star-studded for a genre effort, featuring a host of attractive, affable young people and horror icons Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), Danielle Harris (Jamie Lloyd of HALLOWEEN 4 and 5) and Brad Dourif (Chucky). Though the youthful characters are rather self-absorbed, they are also never less than completely convincing, played well by the likes of Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Josh Jackson, Tara Reid and future Lex Luthor, Michael Rosenbaum. Director Blanks makes good use of his recognizable cast with funny references to other work they’ve done, such as the scene where Jackson turns on his car radio and winces when the DAWSON’S CREEK theme blares out of the speakers, or a conversation in which a co-ed refers to Gayheart’s character as “the girl from the Noxzema commercial”. Blessed with hindsight, viewers may also get a chuckle out of the scene in which radio host Reid warns a caller against swallowing her boyfriend’s seminal fluid (the “stomach pumped for ejaculate” myth), foreshadowing her own fellatio follies in the early moments of 1999’s AMERICAN PIE. Englund, Harris and Dourif aren’t the only allusions to other psycho franchises – two of the characters are named Michael McDonald and Michelle Mancini, alliterative nods to pioneering screen slasher Michael Myers.
Often in this type of film, there is little logic behind the killer’s choice of victims. Either a gaggle of unlikely friends travels to a remote place and get themselves bumped off one by one, or the madman simply picks a handful of the prettiest and most cliched characters on campus (or wherever) to hack to pieces. URBAN LEGEND is one of the few flicks in this subgenre where a credible reason for singling out this particular group is presented alongside the murderer’s underlying motive. Though the script does require the audience to accept that the killer (ultimately revealed to be one of the established characters) spends an awful lot of time keeping close tabs on the victims and has a good deal of luck when setting up the murders (as in most slasher movies, frankly), the plot is so well-structured that one won’t be scratching one’s head as the credits roll, wondering what the lunatic in the hooded winter coat was thinking. Like any good urban legend, this story is just plausible enough to make you consider its legitimacy, in spite of reason and common sense.
There are two notable flaws in the film. First, the killer displays many of the superhuman, indestructible qualities common to movie psychos, yet the character under the hood turns out to be anything but a hulking, freakishly strong monster. How does this particular person survive being shot, hit by a car, knocked out a fourth story window and thrown off a bridge into the river? We never really know. Though the actor playing the killer does a fine job, the script undermines the scene-stealing performance a bit with too many obligatory false finishes. The second problem with URBAN LEGEND is that, although it is very suspenseful and tense at points throughout, it isn’t really all that scary. The viewer is caught up in the action as it plays out, but only the most timid audience member is likely to look nervously over their shoulder as they leave the theater or check their backseat before they get into their car to drive home. It has all of the popcorn excitement of a decent theme park ride, but never quite achieves the lingering creepiness of slasher classics like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH or even SCREAM.
Though it has many detractors, URBAN LEGEND was a box-office hit and spawned two inferior sequels. Sadly, neither of these efforts was able to employ real urban myths or their popularity with young people as effectively as the first entry in the series. It is not a groundbreaking horror classic, but URBAN LEGEND is a smart, enjoyable amalgamation of modern folklore and slasher film conventions, worthy of a much better reputation among scary movie fans. It is well-acted, hits all the right buttons, and slyly pokes fun at our societal obsession with the macabre and horrific.
Besides, I heard it was all true. I have a cousin who knew a guy who went to college up in New England, and he said that…