Monday, September 14, 2020

You Will Believe

I saw Urban Legend in the theater as a 16-year-old horror fan who was witnessing the rebirth of slashers aimed squarely at my generation. Having been that awkward kid with full video store access, it was a strange place to be. Suddenly, the type of movies I'd beg to watch at slumber parties were actually cool. The only problem: the actual movies were not.

I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween H20, Disturbing Behavior...the list of movies with good talent and promise that don't actually work that well as horror is pretty long. My memory of Urban Legend was that it was more fun than most of its peers, but, well, it's been 22 years. Let's see how it's aged.

Quick Plot: Pendleton University student Michelle Mancini (yes, the name should remind you of a certain hero of mine) stops for gas on a dark, rainy evening, immediately becoming suspicious of the twitchy gas station attendant beckoning her to get out of her car. Considering he's played by Brad Dourf with Charles Lee Ray eyes and Billy Bibbit's speech impediment, you can understand her edginess. 

Enter the first urban legend of Urban Legend: there's someone in the backseat, and Michelle learns too late that some legends can be true...particularly in slashers all about turning urban legends into elaborate murder set pieces.

The Pendleton student body seems fairly ambivalent about one of their own being brutally murdered. Only Paul (Jordan Catalano era Jared Leto), an ambitious school newspaper reporter, and Natalie (Alicia Witt at her most radiant red-headedness), who knows a thing or two about the deadly possibilities of modern folktales and Michelle Mancini, suspect there's a bigger story at play.

Like any Canadian-posing-as-New-England university, Pendleton has its share of haunted, shrouded history. 1998 marks the 25th anniversary of a fabled massacre, and mysterious professor William Wexler (Robert Enguland!) seems to have a bit much invested in covering it up while also convincing his students that urban legends are pure myth.

Cut to 16-year-old me, who had just begun receiving colorful college brochures with autumnal imagery, becoming even more excited to get out of high school and sit in lecture halls where Freddy Krueger showed slides straight out of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark.

Anyway, future dreams aside, Urban Legend is indeed the perfect late '90s slasher. Sure, the brown lipstick fashion trends and resigned sighs of seeing your roommate on dial-up and getting a busy signal on your landline give you a knowing wink 22 years later, but here's the thing: Urban Legend is actually kinda good.

Yes, we wouldn't have had Urban Legend in theaters had it not been for the success of Scream one year earlier, and yes, it follows many of the same beats BUT, guess what: the same can be said for Friday the 13th to Halloween, or The Intruder to Friday the 13th, and so on and so on. 

Urban Legend knows its slasher playbook: pal after pal of our final girl dies in a high concept way by a dark figure whose face is obscured (in this case, with a winter coat that apparently everyone in town owns). Each murder is inspired by a popular urban legend, sometimes with an added twist. It's a perfect horror movie setup from first-time screenwriter Silvio Horta, and first-time director Jamie Blanks manages a surprisingly sharp balance between treating the horror seriously while clearly holding in a giant wink.

There are plenty of small touches throughout Urban Legend that demonstrate a clear affection for the genre, from using Chucky creator Don Mancini's name to casting Halloween 4/5's Danielle Harris as Natalie's ill-fated goth roommate. The reveal of the killer is big and stupid in the best of ways, while the coda lets you reframe the entire movie in whatever guise you choose. 

We're at a very specific moment in time when we can look at the '90s with rose-colored glasses. Horror cinema at this time was defined by the self-aware slasher, and while Urban Legend may have felt trite in 1998, it has aged remarkably well two decades after its debut.

High Points
Most of the actual violence is so over-the-top that it's more silly than scary, but the opening scene is genuinely thrilling, with the reveal played to perfect effect amid a rain-soaked dark highway

Low Points
There are two genuinely unpleasant things in Urban Legend, and I'm not talking about the many dead young people or Joshua Jackson's hair color: yes, a dozen innocent students are brutally murdered, but the force-alcohol-fed dog-in-the-microwave moment feels line crossing. The other is one of those uncomfortable real-life mirrors that's hard to put out of your mind: in 2001, Rebecca Gayheart was convicted of vehicular manslaughter that caused the death of a child. Much like Natalie and Michelle, this wealthy white woman received a small fine and probation. There's a lot to process there and it doesn't necessarily need to be done to enjoy a sharp '90s horror flick, but it feels wrong not to acknowledge it when discussing the movie

Lessons Learned, Late '90s Edition
As witnessed here and in Se7en, there was a high correlation between serial killing and excessive rain

A bad bleach job was all you needed to pass yourself off as a Hanson brother

You'd never get a job in the newspaper industry without a hefty batch of school paper writing samples

Urban Legend is currently streaming on Hulu, and I found it surprisingly enjoyable to revisit. It won't change your life, but it just might make you look fondly back at a period of genre cinema we'd all once written off.

Bonus Content!
Hungry for more discussion on '90s theatrical horror? Allow me to point you back to Canada for Alexandra West's fantastic essay book on the subject, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle. It's a smart, scholarly, and fun look at a decade that we long took for granted. 


  1. "Having been that awkward kid with full video store access, it was a strange place to be. Suddenly, the type of movies I'd beg to watch at slumber parties were actually cool. The only problem: the actual movies were not."

    This is a fascinating point. I have always innately felt this way too but never realized it till you said it. I grew up gawking at the 80's horror movie boxes on the video store shelves but never had any interest in any of the late 90's horrors when that trend hit. They all seemed too slick and Hollywood machine-ish, not gory enough, not scary enough, and there wasn't enough weird supernatural or alien elements for me (I've never been nuts about the "there's a regular person killing other people" premise). It was such a letdown. But on the other hand, I actually watched Scream for the first time last year and it was shockingly fun. I wonder what other 90's diamond-in-the-roughs await me. Urban Legend? Maybe.

    1. I think the nostalgic aspect of horror fandom is so fascinating. I remember when the Saw movies were hitting and how much diehard horror fans HATED them, and I just kept thinking how they'd be treated like Friday the 13th 20 years later.

      It's nice to be over my '90s snobbery, because a lot of the studio flicks that came out then are really fun today. I still have a LOT of issues with Halloween H2O, but I can at least enjoy the pure '90sness of it. Same is true for I Know What You Did Last Summer, which has SO many problems, but it also has Sarah Michelle Gellar with little butterfly clips in her hair, and how can I be THAT angry?

  2. 'Brad Dourf'? 'Robert Enguland'? Who are they? (ha!)

    My friend was just telling me about having her nieces (who are 16ish) over and how they wanted to watch horror movies like 'Babysitter: Killer Queen' and 'Happy Death Day 2U'... which my friend found to be not scary, but funny and gorey.
    My friend was tempted to show them some 'real' horror but I suggested Scream and things of that ilk might be more to their liking... so sounds like this one should go on that list as well.