Sony // 1998 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 23rd, 2008
Tagline A: It happened to someone who knows someone you know...you're
Audience: "Huh? Whatever."
Tagline B: What you don't believe can kill you.
Audience: "Oh, hey, that looks good."
"Someone's taking all of these urban legends, and making them reality."
It's not a safe time to be a student at Pendleton University. Sure, it's a charming New England school that supposedly boasts "the safest college campus in the Northeast." That doesn't change the fact that some bad things are happening there. A series of murders are being committed in a particularly unusual manner. The murders are all based on a variety of "urban legends," terrifying and well-known stories that may or may not be true. The killer is determined to turn these legends into facts, and a girl named Natalie (Alicia Witt, The Upside of Anger) is somehow connected to every one of these killings. Natalie thinks she's being stalked, but few believe her stories. The killer does too good a job covering up the evidence. Who is this killer, and how many more victims will he or she claim before the mystery is uncovered?
In the mid-to-late 1990s (aka "the Scream era), the teen slasher film starting surging in popularity once again. The films featured formulas quite similar to genre films of the 1980s, though there was typically a little bit more violence and a lot less gratuitous nudity (audiences had become increasingly comfortable with the former while getting cold towards the latter). Studios loved this trend, as these slasher movies were relatively inexpensive to produce (most of them had a cost of around $15 million) and more often than not made a nice little profit at the box office. Urban Legend pretty much offers up a nice summary of everything these films had to offer, for better or worse.
The movie was co-produced by a fellow named Neal H. Moritz, who has built a career around cheap Friday night movies geared at teenagers. Consider his credits, which include such titles as I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Fast and the Furious, Cruel Intentions, The Skulls, Not Another Teen Movie, and Torque. I'm willing to bet that at this point you have a pretty good idea of whether or not Urban Legend is your kind of movie. You know that the cast will be young, pretty, and probably not particularly talented.
The assortment of teenagers presented in the film is a hit-and-miss batch. The lead character is played by Alicia Witt, who suffers several blows at the hands of the screenplay. Witt projects a personality that seems strong and intelligent, but the film requires her to alternate between smart and stupid on a regular basis. When someone is about to be murdered, she has to act dense so that she can't prevent it. After someone has been murdered, she has to act smart so that she can piece the clues together. After spinning and whirling through a variety of unpleasant situations, poor Witt finally emerges as nothing more than a pawn of the plot.
Unusually, first billing is given to Jared Leto, who definitely plays a supporting role. He's fine, but doesn't have much to do. Joshua Jackson (Dawson's Creek) plays Witt's boyfriend, who is a real jerk. Such a personality almost guarantees death in a film like this, but no fair telling. Rebecca Gayheart (Scream 2) plays Witt's best friend, who mostly gets to act sympathetic and understanding. Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville) plays a wild and crazy (insert your favorite word here)aholic, whose addictions leave him too mentally impaired to be a suspect. Tara Reid (Cruel Intentions) is here as Rosenbaum's girlfriend, who hosts a college radio show about sex. There are a few suspicious adults, too. There is a college professor who just so happens to be an expert on urban legends. When I tell you that he is played by Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street), you know all you need to know about him. John Neville (Little Women) has a few nice scenes as the college dean, and Brad Dourif (Deadwood) has a very good cameo.
The film is competently directed by second-timer Jamie Blanks and written by first-timer Silvio Horton, but one gets the feeling that Moritz and co-producers Michael McDonnell and Gina Matthews are responsible for the film. It feels oh-so-very-similar to other films of this sort. I'm not just talking about the plot and the cliches. The atmosphere, camera shots, dialogue...everything seems so familiar, we generally know what the characters are going to say or do long before that actually say or do it. I watched this just one day after watching I Know What You Did Last Summer, and both feel positively interchangeable. I only know that I Know What You Did Last Summer featured a cranky fisherman, and that this film features somebody wearing a jacket with a furry hood that obscures their identity.
Speaking of that...just how many identity-obscuring jackets are there on this campus? It seems like at least half a dozen different people own this exact same jacket. I can't determine any reason for this other than that the film wants us to suspect a lot of different people. Still, I defy you to go to a New England campus and find more than one person wearing a jacket as ridiculous and attention-catching as that one. Come to think of it, the same thing happened in I Know What You Did Last Summer, with everybody wearing fisherman outfits. Hmmm. Anyway. This film is probably a little bit better than that one, if only because the murders here are a bit more creative. Still, it's strictly for genre fans with low expectations.
The hi-def transfer is about average for a film about a decade old. A few brief scenes suffer from some grain, but mostly this is clean and solid. Blacks could stand to be a little deeper from time to time. The sound mix is a particularly boisterous one, with lots of slashing and crashing noises blending in with Christopher Young's effective score (he's scored approximately 7,293 of these things). Special features include a self-congratulatory commentary with Blanks, a limp EPK-style featurette, and a trailer. Meh.
Though the film regularly engages in every sort of horror cliche imaginable, Urban Legends does offer the occasional moment of inspiration. Aside from some reasonably creative scenes of violence (dog + microwave = bad results), there's also an excellent opening scene that is creepier and more effective than anything else in the movie. This is mostly thanks to Brad Dourif, who does more good acting in his three minutes of screen time than the rest of the cast combined.
Yeah, I really haven't got much more to say. It is what it is. Be easy.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Making-of Featurette