In the post-Scream head-rush that gave its respective genre a severe case of whiplash, one that hadn’t been seen since the subsequent years after John Carpenter’s Halloween cut its way into mainstream cinemas, studios were ravenous for more. Wielding an iron that burned its hot young cast into our retinas, Wes Craven’s redefining slasher success lit the match that would ignite an entire genre, creating a slasher boom that generated its fair share of fallout. Among those caught in the bloody aftermath is 1998’s Urban Legend, a similarly meta hack and slash that drives its axe straight into the mouth of madness, turning spine-tingling oral history into one of the most widely unappreciated entries in 90’s horror.
Getting to work, Urban Legend quickly and effectively establishes its modus operandi: offing its cast of collegiate slasher bate using speculative stories. You know, the one your friend heard from his girlfriend who heard it from her brother? It’s a tragically brilliant twist on Scream’s use of slasher films from the golden age as a means of instigating terror, placing a more traditional riff on Craven’s meta sensibility.
Beginning on a winding road outside Pendleton, a fashionably brick and seasonal New England university, a young student runs out of gas (consequences of driving a luxury Sedan) and stops at a roadside station, only to be accosted by an attendant who tries to warn her of impending danger. Thinking she narrowly escaped death, the student continues driving, only to be decapitated moments later with an axe by a hooded assailant hiding out in her backseat.
It’s an opening that’s powered by Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ – in what might as well amount to a sing-along scene – and played up by Brad Dourif as the stammering gas station attendant who proves he’s one of the greatest living character actors. To this day, the desperate rain-soaked warning of “someone’s in the backseat” – the high point in the urban legend deep-cut ‘High Beams’ – still manages to elicit a chill, proving just how effective Urban Legend is 20 years later.
Cut to a very Friends inspired campus coffee house that has Natalie (Alicia Witt) and Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart), two college BFF’s each with wildly different appreciation for horror stories, listening to their friend Parker (Michael Rosenbaum) recite (probably for the umpteenth time) the accounts of the Stanley Hall Massacre; a local legend about a crazed professor with a penchant for dispatching co-eds with a hunting knife. To commemorate the slayings, Omega Sigma Phi has an annual bash, a fraternity gathering that never quite lets Pendleton outgrow its propensity for urban legends.
Working in contrast to the ongoing lies that come from playing telephone with a handful of bloody stories is Paul (a fresh-cut post- My So Called Life Jared Leto), the school journalist who states with front page hubris that he almost won the student Pulitzer. He’s the non-believer, the film’s crushing adult who steelily proclaims that there is no Santa Claus, popping up here and there to provide a heart-pounding certainty that something will in fact happen.
Because like the seasonal mall-staple that knows when you’ve been bad or good, everyone wants to believe. It’s what keeps the myths going, and exactly why Professor Wexler’s (Robert Englund) lecture on folk-lore is littered with eager minds who will inevitably pass their new-found stories on to someone else, thus perpetuating the never ending cycle of its contemporary mythology. Instead of drawing from the horror films that came in the wake of such tales (Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, Candyman), Urban Legend explores the myths themselves, which is as close to Scream‘s skin as its going to cut.
Instead of redefining its source material the way Craven explored the genre like a child with putty, director Jamie Blanks unveils each beat through visual storytelling, imploring anecdotes, slideshows, books and reenactments. Legends are explored weaving layers between the slasher tropes that give the film texture that isn’t often felt in a genre that’s too often hungry for blood. Almost every kill proceeding the first is illustrated through the film’s understanding and examination of the legends it’s mirroring, and while we know how each urban legend unfolds, we don’t know to who.
That’s partly because Urban Legend isn’t concerned with the inclinations of partying and oversexed students, departing from a staple of the slasher genre that often puts the spotlight on who will die next. Which is what makes the characters at Pendleton University so engaging. Sure, they’re still archetypes of the genre (Halloween 4‘s Danielle Harris portraying the angry goth searching for a fuck toy on a goth dating site is one glaring inclusion) yet they’re, dare I say, more astute portrayals of student life than Scream or its collegiate sequel have ever amassed. They accurately capture the bravado that prances around the quad with the precision of a knife, and while they aren’t all likeable (I will and have often argued that Natalie is one of the genre’s most wearisome final girls to ever fight back), they feel refreshingly detached from the countless carbon copies of abstinence-or-die characters that we have come to know.
This is seen best in Sasha Thomas (played by Tara Reid in what might be her most convincing performance next to Josie and the Pussycats), the campus sex-jock who hosts a radio show called ‘Under the Covers’ which solicits hard and appetizing erotic advice to bed weary students. Her raspy, informative voice sashays out of cleverly placed radios throughout scenes, relinquishing information that may very well be the only truth peddled outside the classroom. She stands as a beacon of sex positivity and even defies odds and tropes, lasting almost to the very end before being caught in a standout cat and mouse chase through the radio station, her scream caught on air in a devilishly delightful riff off the Ohio Player’s ‘Love Rollercoaster’ urban legend.
Sasha and her place on the killer’s belt prove this isn’t all just a hollow imitation of Scream, a claim that is just as twisted and inaccurate as the Urban Legend‘s many myths.
And if you need another reason, look no further than its subversion of the killer, removing the underlying element of sex as a basis for preying on young women by manipulating the standard male killer trope. It’s a reveal that brings with it a whole lot of curls and one bug-eyed performance by Rebecca Gayheart, who takes an axe to the term manic with enough sadistic elation to fill a demonic glee club. She’s unhinged, over the top, and chews scenery with the hunger of a chainsaw, treating the final stage as a Shakespearean play. It’s a performance that will forever stand as one of the many reasons why Urban Legend will be that slasher your friend tells his girlfriend’s brother to watch, enduring for yet another 20 years.