URBAN LEGEND (1998) is, to my mind, one of the most “obviously we’re making this because of the success of SCREAM” horror movies that exists. It’s another young-people-whodunit-slasher, with a similarly constituted cast of pretty young movie and TV stars, but instead of killings inspired by horror movie tropes, these ones are based on popular urban myths. At the time I think I took it as dumb but pretty enjoyable, which is also how I feel about it now, and about many non-classic slasher movies. Like most of them it benefits from age – it’s a time capsule now rather than the latest the genre has to offer, so we have different expectations for it.
Also in the tradition of SCREAM, the opening scene is the best part. Michelle (Natasha Gregson Wagner, MODERN VAMPIRES) is on the road, listening to “Sasha on WZAB, the voice of Pendleton University” while driving at night. But she’s getting tired, so she puts in a tape – “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – and sings along.
I had forgotten all about this when I reviewed THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT, which also has a memorable scene set to the Bonnie Tyler/Jim Steinman anthem. As great as that scene was, URBAN LEGEND uses it even better. First of all, I like that she’s singing badly. Realism. Second, it’s part of a perfectly timed joke. The scene is based on the urban legend of a woman being scared by a man approaching her car, not realizing he’s trying to warn her someone is hiding in the back seat. In this case she stops at a gas station, and the stuttering attendant played by Brad Dourif (SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION) pretends that her debit card didn’t work, trying to move her to safety inside, but it understandably seems to her like he’s trying to kidnap her. So she speeds off, the tape resumes playing, and a figure rises up behind her as the song is saying, “Turn around…”
An axe shatters the driver’s side window and splatters blood, and then we dissolve to the main story on Pendleton campus. Obviously we should’ve seen her head flying out the window to really put an exclamation point on it, so (whether due to those meddlers at the MPAA or not) this is already not living up to its full potential. But it’s still a great way to kick off a movie.
Meanwhile, over at the WZAB studio (which has L7 and Marilyn Manson posters on the wall) Sasha (Tara Reid, A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT) is finishing up her show. Weirdly I think she only does one other episode during the movie, and doesn’t mention her show much. A pretty casual hobby.
But she’s part of a central group of friends who are introduced telling the legend of a massacre that happened on campus 25 years ago. Since it’s not a summer camp movie they’re not sitting around a campfire, they’re on couches in a Friends-like coffee shop. We’ve got Natalie (Alicia Witt, FOUR ROOMS), Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart, SCREAM 2) and Parker (Michael Rosenbaum, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2–3, at a point when he was very Paul Rudd-y). Brenda has a crush on Paul (Jared Leto, ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE), an arrogant doofus whose entire identity is wrapped around being an intrepid investigative journalist for the campus newspaper. “That article almost got me the student Pulitzer!” he claims when somebody teases him. Also they’re sort of friends with bleach-blond prank-loving douchebag Damon (Joshua Jackson, CURSED), who shortly before his death will make a move on grieving Natalie by pretending he had a girlfriend who died of cancer.
So we got a Dawson’s Creek cast member, a well-adjusted former child star (and future star of made-for-cable Christmas romcoms), a future Oscar winner/weirdo, a future podcaster, a recent BIG LEBOWSKI cast member. Pretty good selection of young actors here. There are also some guest appearances by horror icons before that was too much of a cliche: Dourif in the opening, Robert Englund as a professor, Danielle Harris (after HALLOWEEN 4–5, before Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN I–II) as Natalie’s grouchy goth roommate Tosh. She’s funny because she frequents a chat room called “Goth 4 Goth” where she asks for “Gothic guys on campus lookin’ to hook up” and immediately gets the response “We’re on similar dark paths.” Obviously it’s the killer, though. Natalie comes home while Tosh is being killed in her bed, but averts her eyes and puts on headphones because she’s used to walking in on sex.
Because Tosh was goth and depressed her death is ruled a suicide, even though somebody wrote “AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU DIDN’T TURN ON THE LIGHT” on the wall in blood. Campus security officer Reese (Loretta Devine, LIVIN’ LARGE), whose obsession with Pam Grier probly seemed cuter at the time, is at least open to persuasion later on.
In researching this I found many people complaining that the deaths aren’t actually based on urban legends, but I don’t know why they say that. Maybe it’s because some of the more famous ones (exploding from pop rocks, Bloody Mary) are just talked about and not used for murders. The one I’m impressed that they mentioned is the popular myth that one of the screams heard in “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players was a woman being stabbed in the studio. It’s bullshit but it’s creepy, I’m glad they got it in there even if it was instead of the THREE MEN AND A BABY ghost child, the death of Life Cereal Mikey or Alfonso Ribeiro breaking his neck doing a headspin.
Englund’s character delivers exposition in a lecture about urban legends and acts dickish/suspicious. Just like many people wear Ghostface-type boots in SCREAM, everyone on campus seems to own a parka exactly like the one the killer has been seen in.
We come to find out that Natalie has been hiding that she knew the first victim, the one whose heart was totally eclipsed. As teenagers they heard the urban legend about if you flash your headlights at someone to warn them their lights are off they might kill you as part of a gang initiation. So they got a random guy to flash his lights at them and chased him, causing him to crash and die. Do you think that might have something to do with this?
(Weirdly in the flashback the girls stay at the accident scene, fess up to what they did and are let off easy by a sympathetic justice system, but later we see a newspaper headline calling the accident an “apparent gang initiation.”)
For some reason it wasn’t until she did a season of Justified that it occurred to me, “Wow, I really like Alicia Witt.” This is probly not the best performance of her career, but she has the kind of presence that makes a fairly generic lead character work, and that makes me forgive the character’s various sins. The thing about a movie like this is that on one hand it’s certainly not one of the great horror movies, on the other hand it stays entertaining, the cast is good, it has high production value, it’s never less than competent in its craft, and none of those things are a given in the genre, especially now that low budgets are lower and medium-sized budgets are harder to come by than they were in those days.
The score is by the great Christopher Young (HELLRAISER) but it seems to me they’re making him sound too much like Marco Beltrami’s stabs in SCREAM. Oh well. Especially for this era the kills are pretty good. I like when Natalie drives her car not knowing it’s tied to a noose around Damon’s neck. And I like that after the dean (John Neville, DANGEROUS MINDS) is impaled on tire spikes in the parking garage it pans to the “severe tire damage” sign.
Since you’ve had 25 years to find out who the killer is in this, I figure it’s fair game to discuss here. Natalie gets bonked and tied up by her best friend Brenda, who reveals that she was engaged to the victim of the car accident Natalie and her friend caused as teens. Then she tries to remove Natalie’s kidney. This is a highlight of the movie because Gayheart gets to do the type of post-reveal mega-acting the killers do in the SCREAM movies, but she gets longer to do it and she gets really silly with it. I like when she for some reason calls her “Miss Thang,” and that she bothered to prepare a “visual aid” (a slide presentation). Which in those days required going to the photo developers, paying extra for slides, all that. Also she took the time to light enough candles for a romantic sex scene.
I think Brenda being behind all these urban legend themed killings probly confirms it was an act in the beginning when she was such an idiot about believing all the ones mentioned during a lecture about urban legends. Good commitment to the bit, Brenda.
There’s a fake-out ending where they think they killed her and are driving away but (every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes) she appears in the back seat with an ax and they fight and crash and she’s ejected through the window and falls off the bridge. Good ending, brings it full circle, but also funny because they must’ve realized during editing that they abandoned Reese alone with a gunshot wound so there’s an awkward ADR line saying the paramedics are on their way. (Still weird to just drive off and leave her there, guys.)
There’s also a funny little epilogue to show that the murders might continue (because Brenda survived and re-enrolled under a new identity) and this is my favorite time capsule part just because of how goofy her new friend group look. There’s a very specific window of time when The Movies felt this was what cool kids looked like.
URBAN LEGEND is the only feature film from Cuban-American writer Silvio Horta, but he quickly got into television as a writer on The Chronicle and creator of Jake 2.0 and Ugly Betty. Unfortunately he died of apparent suicide in 2020.
Director Jamie Blanks was still in his twenties and not many years past graduating from Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. Because he’d made a student film called SILENT NUMBER about a babysitter receiving scary phone calls, a manager tried to get him the gig of directing this hot script called SCARY MOVIE. But some other guy did it under the title SCREAM. When the time came to pitch himself for I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, Blanks went as far as filming scenes from the script on 35mm and making a trailer. The studio had already hired Jim Gillespie, but they were impressed and promised to find Blanks something to direct, which turned out to be this.
Blanks followed URBAN LEGEND with another studio slasher, VALENTINE (2001). That wasn’t well received at the time, as the SCREAM-inspired horror cycle was starting to die off, but I think it’s a fun one. He then returned to Australia for STORM WARNING (2007) and LONG WEEKEND a.k.a. NATURE’S GRAVE (2008), both of which I liked. It’s too bad he hasn’t directed anything since then, though oddly he’s worked as a composer as recently as 2022’s GIRL AT THE WINDOW starring Radha Mitchell. I hope he’ll get back behind the camera some day.