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Case Number 00288

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Urban Legend

Sony // 1998 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Mike Jackson (Retired) // January 27th, 2000

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Urban Legend (Blu-Ray), published July 23rd, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

It happened to someone who knows someone you know…you're next.

Opening Statement

Urban Legend isn't deep. In fact, it's pretty cheesy. A 12-pound block of government-issue cheese, as a friend would say. But it's fun in that way that cheesy, campy horror movies can be fun.

The Evidence

Did you hear that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to KFC because the government said that their genetically-altered "chickens" were not really chickens? They use genetically engineered organisms that have no beaks or feet, and are kept alive on tubes. Their bone structure has been reduced to allow more room for the meat.

That's not really the truth. It's part of an email that a coworker passed on to me the other day, and it is an excellent example of an Urban Legend. Urban legends are apocryphal or wildly inaccurate stories that are passed on from person to person until they reach a point where they are accepted as truth. Often, these stories are of fantastic proportions, or warn of dire circumstances. Here's a few other examples. Walt Disney's body was cryogenically frozen and is on the grounds of Disneyland. A midget who committed suicide can be seen in the background of The Wizard of Oz. A groom taped pictures of his fiancée having sex with the best man under the chairs in the reception hall and then revealed the secret to the wedding patrons.

The killer of Urban Legend is well versed in urban legends (natch), and reenacts the stories in their gory detail. Here's the plot. A coed leaving the fictional Lancaster University stops at a gas station on a dark and stormy night. The attendant tries to warn her of something, but is unheeded. Someone was hiding in the back seat, and decapitates the girl with an axe. Cut to the campus that same night. We are introduced to Natalie (Alicia Witt, Four Rooms, Citizen Ruth), Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart, Scream 2, Jawbreaker), Sasha (Tara Reid, The Big Lebowski, American Pie), Damon (Joshua Jackson, Cruel Intentions, TV's Dawson's Creek), Paul (Jared Leto, Fight Club, American Psycho), and Parker (Michael Rosenbaum, Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil). It's pretty easy to identify them against their profiles in the Horror Movie Cliché Handbook. Natalie is the Good Girl. Brenda is the Good Girl's Best Friend. Sasha is the Bad Girl—she hosts the campus radio station's sex-talk call-in show. Paul is the Nice Guy the Good Girl Likes, even though he is vilified for sensationalizing the stories he writes for the school paper. Parker and Damon both follow in Matthew Lillard's footsteps as the Goofy Guy. Knowing those roles, it should be easy to identify who lives and who dies. The campus also has the Weird Professor (Robert Englund, Freddy of the Nightmare On Elm Street series), the Hard-Nosed Dean (John Neville, The Fifth Element, The X-Files), and the Clueless Cop (Loretta Devine, The Preacher's Wife, Down In The Delta).

It turns out the girl who died in the opening was a high school friend of Natalie. One by one, the people around Natalie begin to die in recreations of urban legends. It's not difficult to see them coming, but I don't want to spoil the surprises. The movie culminates in the killer revealing to Natalie their motives in detail (even with multimedia aids). Naturally, the killer plans an Overly Elaborate Death for the heroine and is foiled at the last minute.

Wes Craven's Scream started a revival of sorts of the teen-oriented horror movie. It also marked a change in attitude—the movies became self-referential, like the actors and crew knew they were making a campy horror movie and are just playing along. Sheer terror was replaced by funpark thrills. That's not bad; in horror movies I actually prefer campiness to seriousness. Urban Legend is packed with one-liners (some witty, others definitely not), in-jokes (such as references to Joshua Jackson's and Rebecca Gayheart's previous career entries), and false scares (eleven that I could count—that's around one every nine minutes). The commentary track makes mention that some reviewers (most notably, the late Gene Siskel) took the movie to task for excessive gore. Actually, there is very little blood to be seen. The extreme violence (such as the axe beheading) takes place off-screen, and very little is shown of the aftermath.

The disc received fives both in video and audio from Widescreen Review, and I would agree with them. The movie is presented both in 2.35:1 anamorphic and in full-frame. I noticed no digital artifacts. Most of the movie takes place in the dark, and the black level and shadow detail both present no problems. According to the commentary track, all of the outdoor night scenes were shot at night, but I was not convinced that some of the shots weren't day-for-night shots (where special filters and post-production work is done on scenes filmed in daylight to make them look like they were filmed at night).

The 5.1 Dolby Digital track envelops the viewer. Few movies I have seen use the full soundstage as effectively. The score is sent all around the viewer, it feels like you are in the middle of the frequent thunderstorms, and the things that go bump in the night will have you looking behind your couch for what's making that noise. Dialogue is not necessarily spatially integrated, but it is never drowned out by everything else that is going on. I feel compelled to mention at this point that during the party scene in the latter half of the movie, you can hear a song ("Zoot Suit Riot") by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, a swing band from my hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Great guys, great music.

There aren't a whole lot of extras. The commentary track is probably the most important. It was recorded by the director Jamie Blanks, the screenwriter Silvio Horta, and actor Michael Rosenbaum. It's a very entertaining track. They obviously understand the movie's tongue-in-cheek nature, and sound like they had fun filming the movie and recording the commentary (which was recorded only three weeks after the theatrical release). Rosenbaum is almost as entertaining as Ben Affleck—he constantly makes fun of Blank's Australian accent, and at one point does a dead-on Christopher Walken impersonation. Urban Legend was Horta's first produced screenplay, and Blank's first directorial effort, and they discuss their trials to bring the movie to the screen.

Other extras include the theatrical trailer, cast bios, and a making-of featurette. The featurette has some nice behind-the-scenes info, but is too brief. What is interesting about it is that a deleted scene is at the end.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

More observant viewers may deduce the identity of the killer rather early. The first time I saw the movie, I was too busy paying attention to think about it. The end of Urban Legend is so preposterous I think that no one could make a guess based on the plot alone.

Closing Statement

If horror isn't your bag, I'm sure you haven't even read this far into the review. Urban Legend is a fun movie and a knockout disc. Most online outlets sell it for under $20, so it's also a good buy.

I used the Urban Legends References Pages as my source for most of the info on real urban legends. It's a great site, and you can spend hours reading all of the info there.

The Verdict

Disc and film are acquitted on all charges. The judge will be checking the back seat of his car prior to leaving the courthouse. Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 95
Extras: 70
Acting: 70
Story: 65
Judgment: 87

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Genre:
• Horror

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary Track
• Theatrical Trailer
• Making-of Featurette
• Deleted Scene








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