Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
As two gay men, we have opted to use the moniker “Horror Queers” for this series of articles. It is a word that has a complicated history due to its derogatory use by bullies and hateful people, but has increasingly been adopted as a term of empowerment and a unifying term that recognizes the many complex identities that make up the LGBTIQQ community. Queer has become commonplace in academia, politics and pop culture over the past three decades. We understand and recognize that the term is still very hurtful for some people, but we believe that the more people that proudly reclaim it, the more the wounds and stigma surrounding the term are reduced. Using the word “queer” is intensely personal, but it is a decision that we are committed to. Please don’t be an asshole when using it and we’ll get along fine.
***SPOILERS for Urban Legend follow.***
Synopsis for Urban Legend:A hooded killer begins murdering students at a prestigious New England University, modeling each murder after a popular urban legend.
Queer Aspect: There isn’t really one, per se, but Rebecca Gayheart’s climactic reveal and villain monologue should be studied by drag queens everywhere.
“Don’t you wanna be an urban legend? All your friends are now!”
Joe, I feel like we’re going to get some flack for our off-cycle posts because of the five we have done (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Anaconda, Sorority Row, Sliver and now Urban Legend), four of them are from the ‘90s (and our own Meagan Navarro just wrote an editorial about Urban Legend a year ago this month). Sorry, readers! Chalk it up to a passion for the films that were being released during my pre-teens and Joe’s teenage years.
Urban Legend is an interesting beast. When it was released it drew many comparisons to Scream, and it’s easy to see why. It’s important to note, however, that by the time Urban Legend came out it had been nine months since Scream 2 was released (the VHS copy of Scream 2 wasn’t released until December 1998, a full year after it hit theaters). Meta-slasher fatigue was already setting in, but let’s not kid ourselves here: Urban Legend isn’t exactly a smart film. I would go as far as to say that it isn’t even a particularly meta film (save for the Dawson’s Creek theme song playing in one of Joshua Jackson’s scenes and a reference to Rebecca Gayheart’s Brenda as the Noxzema girl). Urban Legend is a fairly straightforward slasher film with a fantastic premise that plays it a little too safe until the bonkers climax, but more on that in a bit…
Released on September 25, 1998 (happy 20th anniversary!), Urban Legend was directed by Jamie Blanks and written by the openly gay Silvio Horta, who would go on to be the head writer/executive producer of the wonderful and amazing and CANCELLED FAR TOO SOON Ugly Betty. Urban Legend was Blanks’ second film (his first being an obscure horror film called Silent Number that, coincidentally enough, centers on a babysitter receiving strange phone calls), but he eventually went on to direct the 2001 slasher Valentine, arguably the weakest of the post-Scream slasher resurgence. Unfortunately, Blanks hasn’t directed a film in 10 years, his last being the 2008 remake of Long Weekend.
One cannot talk about Urban Legend without talking about the cast, and it’s a big cast. Much like other ‘90s slasher films, it’s filled with familiar (and pretty) faces from popular TV shows of the time. Let’s put some of this into perspective, shall we?
- Alicia Witt, fresh off of a four-year run on Cybill, as the tortured heroine Natalie (a role reminiscent of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mopey Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer).
- Rebecca Gayheart, known for her work in Noxzema commercials and also for her brief appearance in Scream 2, as Natalie’s best friend Brenda.
- Joshua Jackson (season 2 of Dawson’s Creek was just about to premiere when Urban Legend was released) as womanizer Damon. He also had a brief role in Scream 2.
- Michael Rosenbaum was a relative unknown but was one year away from starring in Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane and three years away from playing Lex Luthor on Smallville.
- Jared Leto, mostly known for the short-lived series My So-Called Life, as the male lead Paul.
- A pre-American Pie (but post-The Big Lebowski) Tara Reid plays radio show host (and resident sexpert) Sasha.
Oh! I didn’t even mention the horror pedigree we have here. Child’s Play’s Brad Dourif plays the gas station attendant in the opening scene. Robert Englund (aka Freddy Krueger) plays a professor at the university and Halloween franchise vet Danielle Harris plays goth girl Tosh, Natalie’s roommate. This cast is stacked. It may not have seemed as impressive in 1998, but it’s pretty fascinating to watch now.
I could go on and on about the cast, but there is one particular person I want to focus on for this article: Rebecca Gayheart. Her performance in the Urban Legend’s final 20 minutes are the sole reason I selected the film for Horror Queers. As mentioned above, Urban Legend dabbles in Scream’s meta sense of humor, but it never really crosses the line into what you would call a horror-comedy. Sure, there are the aforementioned references to an actor’s real-life roles and the occasional joke (panning to a “Severe Tire Damage” sign after the dean gets run over the road spikes), but Urban Legend plays everything rather straight. Then Brenda Bates (in a not-so-sly nod to Norman Bates) reveals herself as the killer and the film becomes borderline campy. Would that the rest of the film had the energy that Gayheart exhibits in those final scenes! Urban Legend would have been a cult classic. Let’s discuss.
For the majority of the film, Gayheart is stuck playing the typical best friend role. She isn’t given much to work with, other than pining for Jared Leto’s Paul. Then, just when you think she’s been kidnapped by the killer in a rainstorm and held hostage in one of the university’s dorm halls, she turns on Natalie and punches (and I mean punches) her in the face. What is so great about this reveal is that Brenda apparently had enough time between being “caught” running in the woods to get to the dorm hall, dry her hair, tease it out, apply the most eyeliner a single person could put on themselves and set up all of the bodies for Natalie to find (she could have set up the bodies beforehand, but debating whether or not she is physically capable of moving all of those corpses without having been seen by anyone is another story entirely). It takes some effort to get the bodies into place, perfect your (previously soaking wet) hair and beat your face to prepare for your big reveal. Brenda is committed to her craft, and I respect that. It’s so ridiculous that you can’t help but be swept along her crazy train, and if you can’t then you probably don’t like Urban Legend very much. I mean, just look at this:
I haven’t even gotten to her line deliveries and crazy eyes, but I’ve gone on for far too long so I’ll pass it on to you, Joe. What did you think of Urban Legend? Are you as enamored by Gayheart’s performance as I am? Is sad sap Natalie a better or worse final girl than IKWYDLS’s sad sap Julie James? Is Loretta Devine the only guard on campus? And aren’t cops supposed to take all phone calls seriously, even if they’ve been warned by a college dean that prank phone calls would be rampant?
I first saw Urban Legend when it first came out in theatres and I remember being mildly disappointed because the film felt slight in comparison to the Scream series. It’s definitely a product of the times – Blanks’ movie is clearly aping the self-aware, meta approach popularized by Kevin Williamson’s films, but it feels more shallow. At the time I had hoped for more interesting deaths inspired by urban legends, which start strong but then fade as the film progresses.
I’ve revisited the film a number of times over the years and I’ve come around to Urban Legend: it has a goofy charm and a built-in awareness of what horror audiences respond to, which as you point out is very clear in the inspired casting of genre icons in supporting roles. The decision not to reconsider the killer’s winter coat apparel after the film’s original seasonal timing was changed from Winter is confounding, but odd choices like this only adds to the film’s silliness. If you can let go of plausibility, Urban Legend is far more appealing.
Less forgivable is Witt. Is she miscast, poorly directed or both? I’ve done no research about how she feels about her performance but Natalie is SUCH a bland character. I would argue that at least Julie James is nursing a year-long remorse-hangover, whereas Natalie just seems like the girl who you’re friends with because no one has the heart to tell her she’s boring. I just don’t understand why this character – of all characters in the film – is our main character and Final Girl. It is legitimately baffling and, to me, the worst lead character of the entire 90s slasher cycle.
Thankfully Natalie is offset by Urban Legend’s greatest asset and the source of the vast majority of its historical goodwill: Gayheart’s balls-to-the-wall performance in the climax. I don’t know enough about the history of the production to know if there were rewrites on Horta’s screenplay about the identity of the killer but it legitimately feels like anyone could have been the killer. With that said, holy hell does Gayheart ever BRING IT when she’s given the opportunity to break out. It’s a perfect example of high camp that the film absolutely needed more of, but at least Urban Legend finishes on a high.
As a sidebar, I’m not sure I can think of another example of a horror villain with a more memorable mane of hair used to such great effect (perhaps Jay Mohr’s wig in Cherry Falls?). I don’t know if Brenda’s got some kind of bump or if those locks were backcombed and blown out into oblivion, but those 2 feet of curls are practically a character unto itself.
My other significant take away upon this rewatch is how enjoyable I find Tara Reid’s Sasha. Time, or more specifically plastic surgery, have not been kind to Miss Reid, but whenever I watch Urban Legend I’m pleasantly surprised by how likable (and quotable) Sasha is. It doesn’t hurt that Sasha gets arguably the best death scene in the film, which feels like a spiritual successor to both Gale’s chase through the sound studio in Scream 2 and Helen’s reigning pinnacle of slasher chase scenes from I Know What You Did Last Summer (read our thoughts on that masterpiece right here). There’s something SO morbidly grotesque about how her death is actively relayed to the listening audience via her mic and the sound effect of her ankle cracking when she drops down the flight of stairs is excellent. I would have liked it even more if she had put up a bit more of a fight, but hey, that’s a minor quibble.
I’ll throw it back over to you, Trace: what’s your favourite death in the film? Do you think Sasha would have been better main character than Natalie? And I didn’t get to your question about Reese, but I wonder how you feel about Loretta Devine’s performance: does it hue too close to parody to have her running around imitating Pam Grier in Foxy Brown or is it simply a fun homage?
Oh Joe, I have to disagree with you on the deaths. They’re all pretty fantastic. Sure, the manner in which most of these people die (hanging, slit wrists, decapitation) isn’t particularly original, but the urban legend setup makes up for any creative shortcomings (though I wish we could have seen Sasha’s head get lobbed off). They look even better when held up against the deaths in the sequel which, in a post-Columbine world, are all rather tame aside from the window decapitation.
I won’t argue with you on Witt, though. She is as dull as toast. Cybill was a bit before my time but maybe she showed promise there? Would we call her the worst Final Girl of the ‘90s, though? I asked this same question about Julie James, but Marley Shelton’s Kate is no prize in Valentine (though I guess that was 2001). Either way, I’ll use this platform as an excuse to recommend the 2005 Queen Latifah vehicle Last Holiday, in which Witt plays an uptight socialite. I’m recommending that movie because A) She’s good in it and B) it’s super cute. I digress…..
Sasha isn’t necessarily a more interesting character, because we don’t know anything about her. But would she make a better Final Girl? She would definitely be more entertaining. Characters like Sasha are never the final girl, though. There isn’t a universe where any screenwriter would have written the film that way and no (major) studio would ever greenlight a film in which the Sasha character is the character that the audience is supposed to connect with. Well, not in 1998, anyway. That being said, Tara Reid may not be the best actress, but she does have talent. Enough talent that people do root for her in this movie (and just look at her in Josie and the Pussycats!).
Her chase scene does also rank up there with Gale’s in Scream 2 and Helen’s in IKWYDLS! I’m so glad you mention that because all three have one thing in common: close calls. Sasha has the close call with the elevator and hanging off the stairs, Helen has the bit where she’s waiting on her sister to unlock the door and Gale has that whole A/V room game of hide-and-seek. With Sasha, I’m a sucker for a good elevator fake-out (the best of which is undoubtedly in the original Halloween II) and a helpless character pleading for her life will never cease to make me feel something for that character, no matter how frustrating they might have been previously (see: Janice in Deep Blue Sea and Nora in Final Destination 2).
As for Devine, I find the character to be more and more grating each time I watch Urban Legend. Your comparison to Niecy Nash’s Denise Hemphill in Scream Queens is accurate, but that show was a comedy first and a horror show second, so that performance fit right in. When I was younger I loved her character. Now, she practically brings the movie to a screeching halt. This is through no fault of Devine, who is simply acting the way the character was written, but that overtly comic performance doesn’t seem to fit, does it? Could it be that they wrote the role for Pam Grier and she turned it down, so they re-wrote the role to be a wanna-be Foxy Brown?
We haven’t really talked much about the sexual politics in play here (get ready for those hateful replies in the comments). Urban Legend does a fairly good job of putting the women on equal playing ground with the men, though the only sexualized characters are women (Tosh getting it doggy style and Sasha’s only dialogue being sex advice), but there is a shocking absence of nudity in the film. The deaths aren’t sexualized in any way, either, except for Rosenbaum’s. He gets the tube of drain cleaner down his throat, which calls to mind a blowjob from hell. Gotta love it!
Plus, the women get the most screen time and are the more interesting characters. Dare I say that Natalie is a better character than Paul? It really sucks that both protagonists are so boring, but Paul has almost nothing going for him. At least Natalie has that pseudo-tragic backstory (and really, would she have received any disciplinary action for merely being a passenger in that car?). Could you imagine a reality show in which Natalie and Paul went on a double date with Julie and Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) from IKWYDLS? I’m already getting sleepy thinking about it.
Joe, what are your lasting impressions of Urban Legend. Is it one of the better horror movies to come out of the ‘90s? Do you prefer it to its sequels, Urban Legends: Final Cut and Urban Legend: Bloody Mary (I actually enjoy the latter)? And I just read this, but did you know that Tara Reid was not the first choice to play Sasha? Sarah Michelle Gellar accepted the role, but had to back out due to scheduling conflicts with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What a different movie that would have been. Jodi Lyn O’Keefe was also offered the role but turned it down to be in Halloween: H20. Does that not shock you? Well, how about this? Both Reese Witherspoon and Melissa Joan Hart turned down the role of Natalie!
Oh man, I would be all over a Bachelor In Paradise style reality TV show with slasher movie characters as the contestants! The producers would literally spend all of their time desperately trying to ramp up the drama between Ray and Julie because they would be soooo boring.
Now onto the main event, because I love playing the “what if” casting game. First off, yes I can absolutely imagine that Blanks and crew tried to pitch this to Pam Grier. Considering who else they managed to nab for cameos/supporting roles, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.
As for the others, I cannot imagine Reese Witherspoon in any role in this film, but I can certainly picture Melissa Joan Hart swapping out Witt for the lead. I don’t know if it would make it a better film, but it’s entirely plausible. Given the list of actresses and the available roles, my preference would have been Jodi Lynn O’Keefe as the lead – her role in H20 is tiny and she’s got a lot more personality and spunk than Witt. Part of me wonders if this was a weird optics thing: If you look over the history of the slasher film, is this the only time that a redhead has been Final Girl? (I’m talking full-blown red, not Virginia Madsen in Candyman strawberry blonde)
As for SMG playing Sasha? Originally I scoffed, but checking my IMDB dates, Urban Legend is only one year away from Gellar’s “bad girl” turn in Cruel Intentions (which is an imminently more memorable role if you’re looking to scuff up your good girl reputation). Sidebar: we’ve managed to work in references to Last Holiday, Josie & The Pussycats and Cruel Intentions, so this is officially our gayest Horror Queers outing yet!
Looking back over the legacy of Urban Legend twenty years later (ugh), I feel like it’s actually held up well. It’s definitely a time capsule into a period when teen slashers were all the rage, particularly the casting of popular network teen stars and genre icons. The script definitely has its flaws, but it’s light years better than the terrible sequel (I haven’t seen the third, though I’ve owned it for years). This is probably a good time to highlight The Faculty of Horror’s Alex West, who just recently released a new book called The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, which covers all three films from a cultural studies POV. It’s a quick read and full of insightful observations about the time period.
For me, one big reason that the film is so memorable is the focus on urban legends, which is the underlying foundation for pretty much every other slasher films. Whereas Scream derives its power from a mixture of metatextual references to horror films and genuine scares, Urban Legend plays on our collective awareness of stories that we can’t quite pin down in reality. In 1998 urban legends, folk tales and myths were still relevant because the world was on the cusp of widespread access to the internet, which meant that written and oral urban legends were far more difficult to disprove or investigate. Consider this: one year later The Blair Witch Project swept the nation by storm, in large part because audiences believed it was real “found footage”.
A cynic could argue that Urban Legend is little more than a cash grab to profit from the rash of new teen horror films, but there’s a reason that people still like and talk about this film. It has an enduring appeal that doesn’t apply to all of the other late 90/early 00 properties (Take Valentine, for example…or better yet, don’t).
Urban Legend still isn’t my favourite of the films in this cycle, but I’ve begrudgingly come around to it. Plus: how do you argue with Brenda’s glorious mane of crazy? Come to think of it, with her smoking good looks and completely batshit personality, Brenda would probably slay the competition on Bachelor in Paradise. I smell a new sequel!
Next time on Horror Queers: we’re back into highly politicized, contentious LGBT territory with 2010’s Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives.
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles right here!