Urban Legend Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

The idea of an urban legend serial killer... it's a stretch.
Urban Legend Poster

Urban legends. Stories about events that actually happened, only they didn't happen first-hand to the person telling the story-- it happened to a friend of a friend, or someone who lived in the neighborhood. Like the couple that was high on LSD and baked their baby in an oven. Or the businessman who is seduced by a woman in a bar, and wakes up the next morning to find one of his kidneys is missing. Or how about the 'Pen Pals' e-mail virus that will erase your hard drive, spoil the milk in your fridge, AND make you impotent? These stories are passed down from person to person, and though some of the details are fuzzy, the teller of the story swears that it actually happened. And like these examples of modern folklore, the new teen-horror slasher pic "Urban Legend" strains credibility... badly.

It's the fall semester at Pendleton U., some generic New England university where lots of beautiful people don't seem to attend classes, but have lots of free time to drink coffee, go to parties, get drunk, and have sex. In between these scholarly activities, a group of 90210 rejects debate the veracity of a legendary student massacre that happened twenty-five years prior. According to legend, a professor went postal with a hunting knife and single-handedly wiped out an entire dormitory of students. Student reporter Paul (Jared Leto) denounces the story as fake, but fear-monger Parker (Michael Rosenbaum) insists that it's true.

These students are then exposed to more debunked legends in their American Folklore class when Professor Wexler (Robert Englund of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise) exposes the truth behind several urban legends. However, these urban legends soon become reality when a killing spree is unleashed on the unsuspecting students of Pendleton U, and students are dispatched in gruesome reenactments of famous urban legends. For some inexplicable reason, the killing seems focused around sophomore student Natalie (Alicia Witt).

Alicia Witt

After witnessing the murder of a fellow student, she finds her life turned upside down as each one of her friends is felled by the urban legend serial killer. Of course, her concerns fall on deaf ears when she approaches the Dean (John Neville, the Well-Manicured Man in "The X-Files") and the Pam Grier-wannabe campus cop Reese (Loretta Devine). Who is killing the students of Pendleton U.? Is it Professor Wexler? Could it be Paul, who is taking an active interest in the campus killing spree? Or is it the shifty-eyed janitor? Or is it going to be someone with a hokey motivation that gets pulled out of thin air at the end of the movie, cheating the audience by violating the story's own internal logic? Probably the latter.

Thank god teen-horror has fallen out of vogue at the studios. Ever since newbie screenwriter penned "Scream" in 1996, completely reinvigorating the horror genre with a fresh 'nudge nudge wink wink' sensibility, every one and their dog has been pitching Hollywood with the next teen-horror slasher movie brimming with self-referential humor. Finally, Hollywood had a new low-budget way of getting the growing teenage demographic to loosen the purse strings and generate record box-office admissions. In some cases the results were laudable, such as with "Scream 2" and "Halloween H20", and in others, audiences were given nothing more than 'Hitchschlock', such as "I Know What You Did Last Summer". Now, two years later, the teen-horror genre market has been saturated, and the big studios are no longer interested in this type of material. Besides "Scream 3", "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer", "The Faculty", and "Killing Mrs. Tingle", there are no other major teen-horror releases planned in the near future. Hopefully, material such as "Urban Legend" should lay this rapidly-deteriorating genre to rest.

Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart

The intriguing premise runs out of steam very quickly, lacking the sharp characterizations and snappy dialogue that is making Kevin Williamson millions. The acting by the ensemble of young thesps is similarly bland. And what is probably the kiss of death for "Urban Legend" is that it quickly degenerates into the epitome of what "Scream" poked fun at-- the cheesy slasher movie populated by stock characters and held together by a flimsy plot that defies logic. At least "Halloween H20" had a character arc that showed growth for Jamie Lee Curtis' character-- in "Urban Legend", the characters just react to scary situations.

However, it did have its moments, even though they were few are far-between. Joshua Jackson, one of the regulars on television's "Dawson's Creek", turns on a radio in the movie and is bombarded by Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait". The casting of Englund was another nice touch. However, what I found truly interesting was where this movie was filmed. "Urban Legend" was filmed in Toronto at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, and so I found it interesting to see my old hangouts in a different light-- especially seeing an axe murderer stalking the halls of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business. Toronto television newscaster Gord Martineau also shows up in a brief cameo, as does one of the regulars from John Woo's "Once a Thief" television series.

'Gee-whiz' moments aside, there isn't much worthwhile in this tired-looking schlocky slasher-- unless you happen to have gone to the University of Toronto. This ain't no "Scream", and it ain't even a "I Know What You Did Last Summer" either. So if someone you know plans on plunking down good money for it, tell them that a friend of a friend, who possibly lives in the same town, said it wasn't worthwhile. And if they don't believe you, tell them that it's true.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.

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