URBAN LEGEND (1998) our review plus other reviews

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‘What you don’t believe in can kill you.’

Urban Legend is a 1998 American slasher horror feature film directed by Australian Jamie Blanks (Long Weekend; Storm WarningValentine). The screenplay was written by Silvio Horta (Horror Movie: The Movie short) and the movie stars Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Tara Reid, Michael Rosenbaum, Robert Englund, Loretta Devine, John Neville, Danielle Harris and Brad Dourif.

Two sequels followed: Urban Legends: Final Cut, which was released theatrically in 2000, and the direct-to-video entry Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, in 2005.

Plot:

Natalie is an attractive, academically-gifted student at Pendleton University. She and her friends are studying in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund). Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall twenty-five years previously.

Natalie (Alicia Witt) is the first one to suspect there’s a killer on campus, especially after she has ties to all of the victims. No one, including her friends, Wexler, Dean Adams and security guard, of course, believes her until it’s too late. Now she finds that she and her friends are part of the killer’s ultimate urban legend…

On November 20, 2018, Scream Factory released Urban Legend as a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray.

Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.com

Disc One:

New Audio commentary with director Jamie Blanks, producer Michael McDonnell, and assistant Edgar Pablos, moderated by author Peter M. Bracke
Audio commentary with director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta and actor Michael Rosenbaum
Theatrical trailer

Disc Two:

New Urban Legacy – 147-minute, eight-part documentary with director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta, executive producers Brad Luff and Nick Osborne, producers Neal Moritz, Gina Matthews, and Michael McDonnell, Phoenix Pictures CEO Mike Medavoy, production designer Charles Breen, director of photography James Chressanthis, editor Jay Cassidy, composer Christopher Young, actors Alicia Witt, Michael Rosenbaum, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Robert Englund, Loretta Devine, Rebecca Gayheart, Tara Reid, and Danielle Harris, assistant Edgar Pablos, author Peter M. Bracke, and more (new)
Extended interviews from Urban Legacy
New Behind-the-scenes footage
Making-of featurette
Deleted scene
Gag reel
TV spots

Review:

The Columbia Pictures’ 1998 fall-Halloween release Urban Legend came from the same producer of 1997’s similar and depressingly popular I Know What You Did Last Summer. Not that one much cares besides myself (and why that is will be explained many paragraphs later), but know that I Know What You Did Last Summer derived from a minor young-adult whodunit mystery novel circulated amidst American school-age readers. The filmmakers, however, energized by the success of Wes Craven’s Scream movies and a renewal of interest in the slasher genre, discarded much of novelist Lois Lowery’s plotline and revived an old urban-legend/scare-story motif of a cloaked maniac with a hook killing kids…

Which led us to Urban Legend, tapping much the same well. The gimmick is that this one went directly to the idea – given a high profile in a series of nonfiction books by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand – of apocryphal cautionary tales and rumours told as fact repeatedly throughout the modern world. Most motifs dealt with escaped asylum lunatics, horribly contaminated food, pets and people killed in freak accidents, ghostly hitchhikers, luxury automobiles sold cheaply in a revenge scheme, overpriced cake recipes, etc. etc. Most (but not all) urban legends have had a macabre tinge; many were borrowed wholesale by fiction writers and moviemakers for plot fodder (a few horror films, notably The Babadook, just created phoney urban legends to suit the narrative).

So, thinking must have gone, why not mashup a bunch of urban legends into a teen-slasher-film narrative (rather than an anthology feature, which some extremely obscure productions have done)?

One immediate problem for Australian-imported director Jamie Blanks: I Know What You Did Last Summer already shot that bolt by using most potent urban-legend character, the lurking madman-with-a-lethal-hook. Leaving Urban Legend with the leftovers. Overall, I think it’s a marginally better motion picture than I Know What You Did Last Summer, but that is faint praise.

At a New England college campus with the mythology of a thirty-year-old massacre, students are dying again, but only undergrad Natalie (Alicia Witt) seems to notice how a parka-clad maniac is dispatching fraternity brothers and creepy co-eds alike. All the deaths seemed tied to her somehow, as well as a folklore class, taught by sinister Professor Wexler (Robert Englund), that concentrates on urban legends (one of Jan Harold Brunvand’s books is briefly glimpsed).

The slayer strikes according to the motifs of famous urban legends, but it really feels like a lesser Scream sequel. Unlike the hack ’em ups of a dozen years ago, with no-name casts of drone victims, it was now a la mode to mutilate familiar faces, mostly TV ingenues in the transition to (maybe) better things on the silver screen: Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Tara Reid, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson etc. And while the Jasons, Freddys and Leatherfaces of yesteryear functioned as straight massacres, this brand of horror at least attempted a tricky whodunit structure. Alas, in Urban Legend you can guess the culprit two-thirds through. All that’s left is to lean back and count the weak shock scenes (faces suddenly popping into the frame; hands suddenly tapping on shoulders) and the occasional amusing references to urban legends. It is, somehow, nice to see genre vets, Englund and Brad Dourif and John Neville pop up in red-herring roles that briefly take the lens off all the fresh-faced newcomers.

So why does Urban Legend linger a bit in my mind (here’s where most of you can stop reading)? It was only one of two productions – the other was John Carpenter’s Vampires – for which I, Charles Cassady, an obscure regional film critic in a failing industrial-midwestern town, was given a full Hollywood-junket treatment, flowing out to Los Angeles to meet the cast and crew.

This was/is nothing all that unusual. Studios were seeking PR-friendly upcoming voices in the media (and the internet was just coming into its own as an advertisement pipeline), and my name from the newspapers came to somebody’s attention somehow. I went out to Los Angeles, checked into the Bel Air Hotel on Columbia’s expense ticket, signed in and joined a busload of similar visiting critics. Quickly, I was disabused that this was a great honour; other newcomers (and repeat patrons) of the press junket included college-student journalists who had barely ever been published and writers for obscure coupon-clipper-driven giveaway newspapers in the Pacific Northwest. Columbia was just casting a wide net for potential collaborators.

I sat through the movie Saturday night and went to a Sunday-morning mass press-conference with eager young Jamie Blanks and all the young cast (no Robert Englund or John Neville, alas) marched through. And it became depressingly clear to me that I had no real story here to offer my newspaper (and, by fiat, Columbia Pictures’ PR department). The movie didn’t especially appeal, and I gleaned little of interest from the performers.

Well, not exactly. Loretta Devine, a black American actress with a career going back quite a few years compared to the kids, was very nice to speak with; she had stories of auditioning for roles alongside legendary Pam Grier. And Tara Reid had just tried a sun-tanning lotion that was exactly that: faux sun-tan dye in a bottle that she had applied to her body rather exposure to photons, and she talked about her satisfaction with that. I suppose if I were any sort of real journalist, I might have gotten a very useful FeMail danger-to-your-skin piece out of that aspect for the Health & Beauty pages (not that my grubby alt-left weekly newspaper had any Health & Beauty pages).

So my brainstorm for the article was this: contacting none other than the great author Jan Harold Brunvand myself (the miracle of e-mail combined with long-distance phone calls) and write a general article about urban legends and how his research brought the storytelling form to such attention that it was now the Macguffin in a slasher flick. What abominable nerve my younger self had!

And Professor Brunvand, unbeknownst to me, had spent the weekend on a camping holiday and was close to unreachable. Yet, God must have had mercy on me (“The little monkey has just watched Urban Legend; I must be benevolent unto him,” I imagine the Almighty stating), and Brunvand’s answers came to me at the very last minute. I made my newspaper’s deadline with a rather good piece on urban legends/Urban Legend that actually paid generous lip-service to the Columbia release.

However, I had sinned. I had gotten nothing really from the press junket-experience into print that Columbia could see a return-on-investment over. In fact, I had pointedly ignored the press conference! A few weeks later I behaved like a good boy with John Carpenter’s Vampires, concocting a publishable Carpenter interview feature and a weak thumbs-up review. But I was never again invited out West by Columbia or anybody else.

There is a sequel, however – with slasher movies there always is. My editor at the alt-left weekly newspaper who had at least partially arranged the affair – and she was continually nice and patient with me; I really do not want to say anything against her – wound up next on Columbia’s invite-list of potential shills. They flew her out to Los Angeles for some subsequent film whose name I never learned, expecting she would turn out reams of friendly coverage of the picture.

If I had erred in my reportage, she really transgressed against the Unwritten Rule: you never write about the press junket itself – just the movie and the talents. She turned in a whimsical article about the junket process, how it felt to be wined and dined by a major Hollywood studio, what the hotel was like, and all that… As punishment for that peep behind the curtain, she also lost all potential for future travels to the City of Dreams on Columbia’s dime.

Perhaps someday she and I will both become urban legends of the newsroom. If only there were still newsrooms…

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:

“This one is a surprise in waiting, entertaining from the jump with a couple onscreen personalities that you’ll remember long after watching. It isn’t a flawless production, or even close to it, for that matter, but Urban Legend is one of those rare pics that adopted a less than favorable reputation, and it didn’t deserve such treatment.” Addicted to Horror Movies

“Urban legends draw their appeal from their exclusiveness, from the idea that they exist in a sort of cultural vacuum, ignored by traditional electronic media but thriving as a sort of post-technological American folklore. But as used in Urban Legend, this shared folklore is nothing more than the basis for a slew of bloody, unimaginative set-pieces.” The AV Club

“The movie contains all the necessary formula characters and even provides the creepy, “could he be the killer?” decoy, and surprises audiences with the revelation of who the killer is, and provides the character with a decent enough motivation that ties the entire movie together in a neat, tidy, 99 minute package.” Blu-ray.com

“Director Jamie Banks also subscribes to that obnoxious late nineties horror device where literally everything is a jump scare followed by a shock of the soundtrack. It’s bad enough we have to believe everyone sneaks up on one another and yanks one another’s shoulder to garner attention, but the shock scares come in fast, and become irritating very quickly. Cinema Crazed

“It was very amusing, especially if you can get into dumb college students in dumb situations getting killed one by one. This one was a little knowing in a Scream type of way, not so much because the characters were referencing horror movies, but because the point of view of the movie is very aware that you are watching a horror movie that in no way relates to reality.” Cinema de Merde

“Many of the slasher films of the 90s could be described as “fun, but forgettable” and Urban Legend certainly falls into that category. The movie has some clever murders, some funny moments, and a nice look. Only the silly appearance of the killer holds the film back.” DVD Sleuth

“There is an energy about Blanks’ approach, enthusing his actors into forgetting they’re not the first to have their throats opened on campus. Alicia Witt especially, as the redhead who witnesses her friends being diced, is convincing. Jared Leto, as the budding student reporter who attempts to keep up, is equally sympathetic.” Eye for Film

“While it’s not “scary” per se, the film does have its fun moments, and features some killer horror cameos […] Urban Legend deserves some credit for the way it tries to subvert certain horror movie clichés despite committing a few contrived sins of its own, and is adequately suited to the nostalgic ephemera of 90s teen slasher popcorn cinema.” Horror Honeys

“Director Jamie Blanks, in his first film, gives the material far more than it deserves […] The only fault in Blanks’s direction is his offering up too many hyped up false jumps by trying to rattle audiences with the soundtrack. All of the novelty death set-pieces are well directed – there is a very suspenseful piece with Tara Reid hanging onto a balcony edge while the killer hacks at her fingertips with an axe.” Moria

“What this all boils down to is that Urban Legend is an entertaining teen horror movie very much in the same style as Scream. It does have some good moments especially the opening murder but the good idea of a serial killer who murders in the style of urban legends seems to go by the wayside as the deaths become more and more generic.” The Movie Scene

Urban Legend is a teen-age moviegoer’s dream. It has familiar young television stars, familiar older stars with cult followings (Robert Englund as the aforementioned professor, John Neville as the dean), an edgy sense of humor, a tricky plot and characters too genre-savvy for their own good.” The New York Times, September 25, 1998

“The film is… fine. Especially if you don’t mind seeing tons of characters you’ve seen before (the straight final girl, the crazy, manic-depressive, chain-smoking goth, the jokester, the editor who will do anything to get a scoop, etc.) and does a decent job of red herrings and keeping you guessing as to who the killer is. Urban Legend is quite Hollywood formulaic…” Screen Anarchy

Main cast and characters:

Jared Leto … Paul Gardener
Alicia Witt … Natalie Simon
Rebecca Gayheart … Brenda Bates
Michael Rosenbaum … Parker Riley
Loretta Devine … Reese Wilson
Joshua Jackson … Damon Brooks
Tara Reid … Sasha Thomas
John Neville … Dean Adams
Julian Richings … Weird Janitor
Robert Englund … Professor William Wexler
Danielle Harris … Tosh Guaneri
Natasha Gregson Wagner … Michelle Mancini
Gord Martineau … David McAree
Kay Hawtrey … Library Attendant
Angela Vint … Bitchy Girl

Technical details:

99 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital | SDDS
Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1

  

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