Released nearly twenty years ago, on September 25, 1998, Urban Legend had the misfortune of being lumped in as another Scream copycat, despite it being a box office success. It’s hard to argue that aesthetically, and tonally, this teen slasher shared a lot in common with the string of ‘90s teen slashers released during the latter half of the decade. Urban Legend is definitely not without its flaws, but it’s a slasher worth revisiting for both its high fun factor and the clever script revolving around urban legends.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for Easter eggs and hidden horror homages, and Urban Legend has quite a few. Casting Robert Englund as unpleasant Professor Wexler was a stroke of genius. Not only is it always great seeing Englund appear in horror films, but his long-standing history as Freddy Krueger makes it even easier to believe that Wexler was behind the murders. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, you can spy a Freddy Krueger puppet hidden in Wexler’s closet, just before the reveal of the axe. Brad Dourif’s casting as the gas station attendant during the kill that emulates the urban legend featuring the killer in the vehicle’s backseat was also a pleasant surprise. Also notable in that kill, is that the victim, Michelle Mancini, is named after Child’s Play creator Don Mancini. Urban Legend marked Danielle Harris’ first major theatrical horror release since her turn as Jamie Lloyd in the Halloween franchise.
The killer’s final reveal is memorable for Rebecca Gayheart’s scene-chewing performance, but there are a few clues sprinkled throughout that the person hidden beneath the winter coat was a female. In keeping with the horror homages, Gayheart’s character, Brenda Bates, was named after Psycho killer Norman Bates. Poor Norman wasn’t known for his grip on reality, and Brenda revealed herself to be extremely unhinged by the film’s climax as well. If that’s too loose of a connection, then look to Pendleton University for more cleverly hidden clues. The motto found on the university’s emblem, in Latin, translates to “The best friend did it.” As for the strange choice for the killer’s outfit itself? It turns out that the original intent was for this to be a winter set story, but the warm weather during production changes those plans. Everything winter was tossed aside, well, except for the killer’s outfit.
That this killer prefers to stage their kills around urban legends gives this slasher an almost anthology quality. From the opening kill, the aforementioned backseat killer, to Tosh’s violent murder nod to “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” Each death is varied enough that it’s fun predicting which urban legend will trigger the next death. With the endless possibilities to explore more fun kills through urban legends, it’s also the perfect setup for a franchise that inexplicably never quite stuck the landing. Brenda’s surprise appearance at the end, showing she survived, has her sporting a ribbon around her neck as an homage to the urban legend where the girl’s head falls off when the ribbon is removed.
As far as the ‘90s teen slasher craze is concerned, Alicia Witt’s Natalie and Jared Leto’s Paul are two of the dullest protagonists. Natalie can be frustratingly incompetent. Yet, the commitment of the entire supporting cast makes this a forgivable flaw. Loretta Devine is such a scene stealer as rent-a-cop Reese Wilson that Ryan Murphy seemed to rip the character off completely for TV series Scream Queens. Gayheart imbues enough liveliness into Brenda that it more than makes up for Natalie’s lifelessness. Joshua Jackson nails the jerk role and takes humorous callbacks to teen show Dawson’s Creek like a champ.
Urban Legend wasn’t a game changer in the slasher genre, but it was a worthy attempt. It still is. It’s not perfect, but it’s one I revisit far more often than most of its time. It’s also one that I wish received a reboot. It’s an effective concept with a wealth of underexplored urban legends, that could use a modern update. As it stands though, it’s a lot of fun.