After Scream resurrected the slasher genre in 1996, studios quickly jumped on the bandwagon and produced teen slashers to capitalize on the craze. For the most part, these movies were cheap imitations, utilizing the same techniques and dialogue as Scream and populating the cast with TV teen drama actors. 1998’s Urban Legend is no different. In fact, it was perhaps the most shameless Scream rip-off of the era.
Urban Legend follows a group of trendy archetypical college kids as they slowly realize their campus is the stomping ground of a serial killer who patterns their kills after urban legends. In other words, it’s Scream based at a college with a killer obsessed with urban legends instead of horror movies. Now, I won’t begrudge someone his or her right to try to make a buck. Though, I will thoroughly criticize a lackluster product.
The movie is purely a reaction to the slasher craze, so a lot of important steps in the filmmaking process fall by the wayside. For one thing, the killer sports a parka throughout the movie that disguises their identity. According to IMDb’s trivia section, this was because the movie was originally supposed to be set during the winter. However, it was too warm during filming and the production didn’t want to fake snow or have the cast in heavy clothing. So they changed it to autumn but kept the parka. It’s as out of place and awkward as it sounds.
The acting is about what you’d expect from a fairly low-grade slasher movie. Alicia Witt is the movie’s Neve Campbell and goes through much of the first two acts without noticing what’s happening. Even when she’s a witness to a murder after the killer’s first victim is discovered, the absence of a body and a really forced assumption about the character’s whereabouts are enough to placate her.
Jared Leto plays Urban Legend’s version of Courteney Cox. He’s a journalism student who immediately and inexplicably prints the hard-hitting article “Lunatic on Campus?” after the first body turns up…off campus. Joshua Jackson sheds his Pacey Witter persona by sporting blond hair and playing Urban Legend’s version of Jamie Kennedy. Which, it turns out, is essentially Pacey Witter. Don’t worry though, being that it’s 1998 there is definitely am over-the-top and cringe worthy Dawson’s Creek reference early in the movie.
Loretta Devine plays Urban Legend’s David Arquette as the campus security guard who comes between the killer and the victims. There’s also Michael Rosenbaum as the movie’s Matthew Lillard character. He’s a fun loving, sex-crazed pile of testosterone. Rebecca Gayheart takes Rose McGowan‘s role from Scream as the protagonist’s wild, carefree best friend. The cast also includes Danielle Harris as a goth, Robert Englund as Professor Red Herring (that might as well be his name) and Tara Reid as a (shocker) sexpot talk radio DJ.
I’ll give Urban Legend a little bit of credit. At its basic, conceptual level, the movie had the potential to be interesting. Its premise takes the scary stories that everyone’s heard and knows about and uses them as the basis for some interesting, though often contrived, death scenes. As the movie reaches its third act, the urban legend concept kind of comes and goes, though.
Not to mention, in the ultimate Scream rip-off, the killer calls a character and says, “You’re going to die tonight” in a distorted voice. The character drunkenly replies with a playful guess at what “Urban Legend” the killer is recreating. You could call it a heavy homage if you like, but this was blatantly a weak attempt to capture the fan base of Scream who may not have latched onto Urban Legend at that point.
The killer’s motivation for the spree feels like an afterthought born from the necessity to finish a rushed script. I appreciated the antagonist’s plans for Alicia Witt’s character at the end. In a different movie it would have worked well (to be fair, it has worked well in other movies before). However, the killer’s plans for escape and concealment are ridiculous when you stop to think about it. In fact, when the killer’s motive is revealed, it’s painfully obvious that there’s really no logical reason for a majority of the victims to die other than it being an expectation of the slasher genre.
The somewhat intriguing premise of Urban Legend isn’t enough to save it from its lackluster…everything else. If you’ve never seen Scream and are really hard up for 1990s nostalgia (pagers, dial up internet, cordless phones), then you might want to watch this movie. At the end of the day, however, it would be much easier to find a decent 90s slasher rather than suffer through this one.
Obsessive Grade: Catch it on TV
You might get a modicum of entertainment out of this if the network it’s on plays decent commercials with it.