Urban Legend (1998)

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*. We can divide the history of the slasher film into certain periods. After its inception in the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, the Hollywood slasher came of age in the early ’80s with a burst of now classic/canonical franchise titles. Then, in the ’90s came self-referentiality and genre deconstruction, with the Scream movies leading the way. And finally in the new millennium there was a return to the originals “reset” in darker, more realistic versions.
*. Sticking with my timeline, Urban Legend fits neatly in as a representative of the ’90s version of the Slasher Movie 2.0. Kim Newman: “Ordinary as it is, Urban Legend was champ in its weight-class.” That weight-class consisting of Scream rip-offs. I say “rip-off” in a non-judgmental way, recognizing that Scream was the seminal text of this period of slasherdom as much as Blood and Black Lace (1964) was for the giallo or Halloween was for the ’80s dead-teenager flicks.
*. Of course, if you’re not the first then you’re going to be called a rip-off. That’s Hollywood. On the DVD commentary director Jamie Blanks and screenwriter Silvio Horta talk about how frustrating it is to have the film always being compared to Scream, while at the same time acknowledging their debt to that film. So I take back rip-off. But they were following in Scream‘s footsteps.

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*. I certainly don’t want to dump on Urban Legend here. Though it didn’t get great reviews, I think this movie holds up very well and I like it a lot. It has a humorous concept, a pair of really good lead performances from Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart, some fun cameos (Brad Dourif and Robert Englund), a solid supporting cast (including Loretta Devine as a Pam Grier Rent-a-Cop, John Neville as the Dean, and Danielle Harris as a Goth roommate from hell), not much gore but lots of suspense, an occasionally clever script, and one truly memorable kill (I mean the tire spikes; the “Drano down the throat” was just so-so).

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*. A more personal reason for my liking it is that it was shot at the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus, which I attended for many years. The exteriors were very familiar to me, albeit different in an uncanny way.
*. It’s amazing how much a place can change when you see it on film. I knew all of the buildings very well, and yet it took me a while to place them. A lot of this is due to the fact that the shots had to be carefully arranged because where they were filming is in fact smack in the middle of downtown Toronto and Blanks wanted Pendleton University to be out in the woods of New Hampshire somewhere.
*. This is part of what gives the movie such a sense of slight otherworldliness. I mean, let’s face it: the story doesn’t make any sense. The campus police force is one security guard? None of the phones work in a storm? There was a massacre at the university just twenty-five years ago and it’s been completely covered up, to the point where nobody can say for sure if it ever happened?

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*. The film does provide an out with its ending. Perhaps the whole movie has been nothing more than the telling of another urban legend. Which isn’t as weak as it sounds given the strangeness of the proceedings. Those Gothic buildings and New England setting had me thinking this might be Miskatonic University in Arkham. It just has that eldritch feel to it. Even the fact that the killer is wearing a parka in the middle of summer adds to the weirdness. Toronto doesn’t get that cold, at least in July.
*. The sense of off-kilter weirdness also helps explain the one scene Blanks singles out on the commentary for being a mistake. This is when Natalie watches Brenda swim laps in the school pool from a glassed-in gallery. Things seem peaceful enough but then Natalie sees a figure in a parka enter the pool area. Thinking this is the killer, she starts screaming and banging on the glass to get Brenda’s attention, finally smashing the glass with a chair just before the person in the parka pulls off her hood and reveals herself to just be some girl in a swimsuit.
*. Now OK, all of this comes off as painfully contrived. Why is this girl entering the pool area from outside wearing a parka (the same parka that keeps turning up in odd places throughout the film)? Why is she wearing a swimsuit, and nothing else, underneath a parka? Why does she keep the hood of the parka up as she walks the entire length of the pool? It’s ridiculous.
*. But then the whole scene is full of implausible points. Does it seem likely that Brenda would be swimming all alone? Or doing lengths in a bikini? We’re not in the real world, or a world that’s even trying to look real.
*. I like the business of Natalie pounding on the glass trying to get Brenda’s attention, and I thought it interesting that it’s a scene that’s reversed later as Tara Reid pounds on the glass trying to get Natalie’s attention before Reid is killed. I wonder how conscious this was, or if Blanks was just doing the same thing almost unconsciously. Apparently he only found the radio station location (where Reid is killed) by accident, so perhaps it wasn’t planned. This was Blanks’s first big movie and he was probably going with stuff he knew. Like those shots from directly overhead of the dead bodies.

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*. All of which means that among the raft of post-Scream hip or ironic slasher films of the ’90s Urban Legend may indeed be “champ in its weight-class.” I’m not sure why it was panned so severely by critics and generally disliked by audiences. For genre fans, I think it’s well worth checking out.

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