The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of ‘80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
When we talk about horror in the ‘90s, there is one film that dominates the conversation: Scream. Wes Craven’s meta-parody on slasher cinema made the genre accessible to both casual viewers and die-hard fans with its rapid fire assault on all the tropes audiences felt they knew about horror movies. But, for all the things Scream does right — and it does a lot right — it still maintains an air of superiority over the genre its playing in. It acts better than the films its poking fun at.
Urban Legend, which came along shortly afterwards, has a less smug approach to a similar concept: taking familiar tales — urban legends instead of horror movies — and weaving them into a whodunit teen slasher. And Urban Legend succeeds at that goal with a level of genre understanding that never teeters into mockery. Actually, Urban Legend goes further back into slasher history and takes inspiration from the giallo genre by delivering a killer masked in something ordinary. In this case, it’s a hooded parka and it’s an almost instantly iconic look.
And while Urban Legend is obviously indebted to Scream’s success — this came out two years after our first encounter with Ghostface — it doesn’t rest on its exploitation origins like other post-Scream slashers did. There’s a desire by screenwriter Silvio Horta to craft an engaging mystery and to find a good reason as to why the killer is using urban legends as an inspiration (the horror movie motive of Scream never felt like a natural part of the story). This also leads to some great kills in the film, including deaths by tire spikes, Pop Rocks and drain cleaner, and a well-executed (heh heh) hanging that’s probably the best example of bringing an urban legend to life.
And like Scream, Urban Legend is aware of its horror legacy and doesn’t shy away from it in the casting. We get a brief but memorable cameo from Brad Dourif as a stuttering gas station attendant, Danielle Harris as the goth roommate of our lead character, and Robert Englund himself plays a college professor whose class is centered around urban legends. It’s little touches like this that give horror lovers winks and nods to horror film history as opposed to Scream’s approach of shoving everything about the genre into your face.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!
In the end, the killer is revealed to be the best friend of the lead character and it’s a nice bit of switcheroo storytelling. We’re setup to think it’s the lead character’s boyfriend — this has got to be a direct reference to Scream, right? — and the big surprise is pulled off with an image that immediately conjures up a classic moment from Halloween. Rebecca Gayheart plays the killer and she gets to crank up the crazy in the third act. She even seems to be channeling a bit of Michelle Pfeiffer from Batman Returns. This is definitely a good thing.
You might be tempted to think that this is all a backhanded way of taking Scream down a peg or two. It’s not. Scream is great but Urban Legend pulls off a lot of the same moves without needing to draw your attention to them. It’s about as old-fashioned a slasher film as you can get but with enough brains to elevate it above being another quick cash-in. Director Jamie Blanks would go on to direct the equally underloved Valentine, so it’s clear he has a respect and appreciation of the genre. That reverence goes a long way towards making Urban Legend work so well.
When it comes to the post-Scream slasher revival, Urban Legend is easily one of the best.