Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Urban Legend (1998)

This weekend, we've got a crappy-looking remake of a beloved horror classic, and a movie that I was looking forward to but is getting fairly mixed reviews, making me want to wait for a matinee. Eh, time to dig into the old DVD pile again...

Urban Legend (1998)

Rated R for horror violence/gore, language and sexual content

Urban Legend ain't Scream, and it ain't even The Faculty, but it's a fair bit better than many horror fans give it credit for. It wears its Scream inspiration on its sleeve, and while it's far from original or intelligent, it works for what it is, which is a cheesy teen slasher flick with more than a few creative kills and inventive scares. It's let down by some glaring plot holes and a mixed bag of performances, but as a quintessential midnight movie, it gets the job done.

As one of the many teen slashers to follow in the wake of Scream, the makers of this film needed a hook, and they found it in... well, read the title. The gimmick here is that the killer stalking our generic New England college is murdering people in accordance with a number of famous urban legends -- the killer hiding in the back seat, the girl who heard scratching on the roof of the car and realized that it was her boyfriend hanging from a tree, the boy who downed Pop Rocks and soda and died when his stomach exploded, the girl who heard her roommate getting murdered in the dark and assumed she was just having rough sex, etc. And since this was made in 1998, the main characters don't have Snopes or MythBusters to turn to in order to judge the veracity of these legends. (That's hardly the only thing that dates the film -- the heroine and her roommate spend more than one scene arguing over the latter's internet usage hogging the phone line. Back in the days of dial-up internet, that was actually a thing that happened.) The actual plot is that, twenty-five years ago, a knife-wielding maniac went on a rampage in a dorm, which has since been covered up and is now only remembered as an urban legend. Now, with the anniversary coming up, somebody is killing people again, and a dwindling pool of survivors must find out whodunit before it's too late.

Unlike Scream, which heavily dismantled and examined the tropes of '80s splatter flicks like a mechanic tuning a car, Urban Legend doesn't use them for much more than window dressing, giving them only a cursory glance-over in the form of a class lecture (done by a criminally underused Robert Englund as a creepy professor) early in the film. This doesn't really detract from the content of the rest of the film, but it does keep it from rising far above the fairly low bar it sets for itself. The kills themselves, fortunately, are well-realized; while one of them got really goofy, the rest (especially the opening scene) demonstrated director Jamie Blanks' solid grasp of suspense, rendering them effective even with only a moderate amount of blood. At the very least, having to base every kill on an urban legend means that the film couldn't have just bland stabbings, and so, even with characters who are quite frankly too dumb to live (Tara Reid, why are you heading back upstairs instead of out the front door!?!?), the setups and the "money shots" are often quite creative.

That applies to the rest of the film as well: effective, even if it doesn't knock it out of the park. The acting is passable, with the film's array of twentysomething college students all, for the most part, delivering solid performances. The aforementioned Englund also stood out with what little screen time he had, as did Brad Dourif in a small (and uncredited) role as a hillbilly gas station attendant and Loretta Devine as the comic relief security guard who worships at the feet of Pam Grier. Of special note is Alicia Witt as the female lead Natalie, and for a fairly odd reason: her style of acting, especially the clipped manner in which she delivered her lines, felt like she'd been plucked from a horror movie made back in the '50s or '60s, which stood out in the modern, ultra-hip teen slasher she was in. She was actually among the better actors in this, along with Jared Leto as the male lead Paul, but it was definitely strange listening to her speak. Unfortunately, the actor playing the killer was horribly miscast, to the point of all but driving this film's plot straight into a ditch. (Spoilers coming, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want 'em.)

After teasing both Robert Englund and Jared Leto as the killers, it ultimately reveals that Rebecca Gayheart's character, the "best friend" Brenda, was behind it all. This presented several huge problems. First, while Gayheart's acting was decent before the big reveal, Brenda's big motive rant saw her trying to imitate the raving insanity of the killer from Scream, and she overacted so badly that I was laughing at her performance. Second, the reveal of Brenda as the killer opens up questions as to how she was able to pull off some of the more elaborate kills by herself. The killer is portrayed as a very powerful, imposing figure, closer to Michael Myers than Ghostface in how she strings bodies up in trees and overpowers her victims -- in other words, not what I think of when I picture the girl from the Noxzema ads in the '90s. Third, her convoluted scheme to frame the professor for the murders is absolutely ridiculous, though it can, of course, be justified by her being crazy. Finally, the reveal came out of nowhere. After spending the entire film building up at least two other characters as suspects, we find out that the killer was somebody who showed no signs of being potentially evil or wanting revenge against Natalie, not even in her backstory? We never find out about how she and Natalie are connected until after the reveal, and said connection -- that Natalie and her friend accidentally killed Brenda's boyfriend in a misguided attempt to replicate an urban legend -- somehow never drives a wedge between the two before then. Natalie even tells Brenda the story in an earlier scene (without revealing the identity of the victim), and Brenda doesn't remark how similar it is to how her boyfriend died? To quote the caricature of M. Night Shyamalan from Robot Chicken, "what a twist!"

But in the end, I really can't hate this film too much. At the end of the day, I got exactly what I wanted: a reasonably entertaining slasher flick. It was well-paced and almost never boring, with the score especially helping to set the mood. Despite being close to 100 minutes, it flew by at a rapid clip, and until it turned into an unintentional comedy at the end, it was actually a reasonably fun thrill ride, even if it occasionally seemed like it was held together with used chewing gum and Scotch tape. And as ridiculous as the ending got, I must say that, even then, I was still being entertained, if only for how fully this film embraced its own best "qualities" and provided a villain who, all faults aside, was definitely memorable.

Score: 3 out of 5

It's pure late '90s cheese, and certainly a lesser film compared to its inspirations, but it's certainly not stale cheese. It's the definition of "so bad it's good", the sort of movie that you and your friends can easily laugh at for all the dumb mistakes the victims make (to say nothing of the big reveal), but which you can still groove to at the same time.

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