Urban Legend (1998)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #390

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Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: September 25, 1998
Sub-Genre: Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $14,000,000
Box Office: $72,527,595
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Jamie Blanks
Producers: Gina Matthews, Michael McDonnell, Neal H. Moritz
Screenplay: Silvio Horta
Special Effects: Martin Malivoire
Cinematography: James Chressanthis
Score: Christopher Young
Editing: Jay Cassidy
Studios: Original Film, Phoenix Pictures
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Stars: Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson, Loretta Devine, Tara Reid, Michael Rosenbaum, Robert Englund, John Neville, Julian Richings, Danielle Harris, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Brad Dourif

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Suggested Audio Candy

Christopher Young “Urban Legend”

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The nineties weren’t exactly vintage for slasher. By the time Wes Craven reinvented the wheel in 1996, using almost the precise same parts but with added smarts, the scene was long-since dead and co-eds were free once more to engage in promiscuous sex and play cruel pranks on their less popular classmates. However, Scream struck a chord with cinema-goers and, as a result, the tired sub-genre enjoyed something of a mini-comeback. Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer enjoyed a fair degree of success the following year and Nick Blanks’ Urban Legend also profited from the trend’s sudden upturn in fortunes. Alas, despite amassing over $70m in box office receipts, it was branded a dud and got even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Enter Keeper and my trusty steed The Crimson Quill as we look to right the wrongs of the sour-faced cynics who had their knives sharpened before the credits were so much as spooled.

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Urban Legend is no classic; let me make that abundantly clear from the offset. It hasn’t an original bone in its entire exoskeleton and relies far too heavily on the one trick up its Parka sleeve. The urban legend is a thing of modern folklore and also a great way to while away the hours whilst toasting marshmallows by the campfire. There are plenty to choose from and Blanks gives us a decent selection; but strip this away and what you are left with is a very old-fashioned slasher the likes of which had flourished in the decade past but long since been put to bed. It is fast-paced, suspenseful, features an up-and-coming cast of teenage heart throbs, and never once outstays its welcome.

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My first experience with this film was on the silver screen and I entered knowing next to nothing about what to expect. Actually, that’s not altogether true. I did have an inkling that innovation was unlikely to be on the agenda. Its chief selling point was anything but unique; a gaggle of impossibly handsome protagonists was all that was required during the millennium’s close and Urban Legend boasted a number of rising stars to hang its hopes on. My point being that I was soundly sideswiped by its opening ten minutes.

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An uncredited Brad Dourif, sporting a similar stammer to the one from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, desperately attempts to convey a message to lone-traveller Michelle (Natasha Gregson Wagner) and, clearly scarred by watching far too many backwoods horror movies, she overreacts to his admittedly shady attempts to get her alone and get things off his chest. After clobbering the poor fool, Michelle exhibits the resourcefulness lacking from her eighties counterparts and the stupidity not to check her back seat before taking off post-haste. By the time our dazed gas station attendant finally dribbles out his warning, she’s already at the first chorus of Total Eclipse Of The Heart and that ominous axe blade is rising from the shadows behind her. As far as intros go; this is something of a doozy.

URBAN LEGEND, Joshua Jackson, Michael Rosenbaum, Rebecca Gayheart, Alicia Witt, 1998, college students in class

Alas, retaining this unbearable level of suspense is always going to be a tough ask and, within another five minutes, we are back in familiar territory. Paul (Jared Leto), Natalie (Alicia Witt), Brenda (woman after my own erection Rebecca Gayheart) and a group of similarly cookie-cutter college boffs attempt to remain one step ahead of their hooded antagonist who is suspected of facilitating the infamous Stanley Hall Massacre twenty-five years prior. Everyone’s a suspect, from the obnoxious dean of students to the shady looking janitor, nobody is above the pointed finger. As Natalie and an initially reluctant Paul begin to uncover more, their friends begin being put to task in all manner of inventive ways. You know the routine; we’ve all seen Scooby Doo.

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Throw in an incompetent campus security guard (Loretta Devine) as the Dewey of the piece and a few dozen red herrings and Blanks has himself a license to print money. Those searching for hidden meaning are pissing in the wrong conifer as revenge is a dish best served repeatedly and it all boils down to the usual embittered remembrance. Similarly, those expecting a pat on the back for their powers of deduction for sussing the killer before the big reveal really ought not use it for bragging rights. Once the identity is shared it is quite possible that a bout of head-scratching will follow as nothing hangs together particularly convincingly but, by that point, our girlfriends are already down to the last few morsels of popcorn and about to receive their free Weiner.

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This film has suffered a lot of flack over the years and, while admittedly not the sharpest tool in the shed, I would say it has been rather unjustly reprimanded. Blanks (Storm Warning, Long Weekend) does his very best with the simple template Silvio Horta’s screenplay provides and the result is undoubtedly the most enjoyable of any of the post-Scream wannabees. Time assists with a piece of film such as this as, over a decade and a half later, we can simply lump this together with countless eighties fodder and enjoy it for exactly what it is. As disposable as its teens and that need not be a negative.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: I would love to meet the bag of dick ends who first suggested that “nineties audiences aren’t interested in bloodletting”. I blame my good pal Ebert for that one. Not nearly enough grue for my liking and that may well have been ample to crank Urban Legend another notch, it did however feature a rather splendid human automobile pendant and the applaudable use of car park spike strips. But for Keeper it could never hope for forward momentum after an effectual opening which had absolutely had no need for splatter.

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Read Scream Appraisal

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Read Campfire Tales Appraisal

Read My Bloody Valentine (2009) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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