Tuesday, September 25, 2018

URBAN LEGEND 20 Years Later

by Adam Riske
This college isn’t preparing their students for the job market very well.

This column contains spoilers for Urban Legend.

It’s easy to compartmentalize Urban Legend as lesser Scream or a cynical attempt to cater to the same late '90s teen audience. Both of those statements are not wrong. Back in 1998, I had a certain excitement and then immediate resistance to Urban Legend because it was made for me, but not as good as Scream and Scream 2. Those films cast a giant shadow over their self-aware teen slasher imitators. It’s only in the past two years that I’ve been able to put aside the trend it was capitalizing on and see Urban Legend as the best of the Scream piggybacks and a very entertaining film in its own right. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but the movie has aged quite well. Urban Legend is just fun, making it easy to revisit 20 years later. Fun is everlasting.
After a long absence, I watched Urban Legend again last year and remembered right away that the movie had a killer opening (pun intended). The film starts by playing out the “Killer in the Backseat” urban legend with Natasha Gregson Wagner (who should have been the final girl) driving on a rainy night and stopping at a gas station where the attendant is played by horror icon Brad Dourif. She’s freaked out by him (I get it...there’s nothing scarier than a wet Dourif) and thinks he’s trying to attack her, when he’s actually trying to warn her there’s someone in the backseat. Director Jamie Blanks (who also directed the 2001 slasher film Valentine) brings a lot of energy, style, and suspense to the sequence. One of my favorite things about Urban Legend is the variety of its set pieces. Part of the fun is trying to recognize which urban legend is being played out or seeing how far Blanks goes to dramatize an urban legend that you’ve only visualized in your head before. My favorite is the sequence where they mix Pop Rocks and Pepsi (together they’re supposed to make your stomach and intestines burst). It’s bullshit, of course. But did you know a guy my cousin dated once drank a 2-liter bottle of Hubba Bubba Soda in one sitting and vomited his brain out of his mouth? He was a Garbage Pail Kid.

Urban Legend has a memorable cast, even though they’re all playing douchenozzles. A disturbingly normal Jared Leto as Paul, the campus investigative reporter; Alicia Witt as the blah final girl (who really should have been the first girl); Rebecca Gayheart as Witt’s best friend; Michael Rosenbaum as Dane Cook; Tara Reid as a sex radio call-in show host (we’ll get to that soon), and a frat boy prankster played by George Clooney clumsily operating a bleached-blonde Joshua Jackson robot. The film also co-stars Loretta Devine as a campus cop who loves Coffy, Baron Munchausen himself John Neville as the dean of students, horror royalty Danielle Harris as Witt’s goth roommate, and the irreplaceable Robert Englund as the erudite folklore professor who teaches the kids about urban legends in his lectures. It’s apparently the only class of importance at this university. I want to go.
On this rewatch, I had a great time with the details of Urban Legend. It feels very catered to me in a lot of ways. There’s campus horror, of which I’m a fan; library research scenes (just once I want the protagonist to go to the library to research a slasher villain’s backstory but first they go look at the CDs); a dating chat room for goths called Goth 4 Goth, which I don’t get at all because this is 1998 so there should still have been campus punch bowl socials for goths; Tara Reid’s non-sexy “sexy” radio show, where the producer is sitting in a separate booth with his shirt unbuttoned because “sexy”; a soundtrack brave enough to feature “Zoot Suit Riot”non-ironically; a cool parka motif for the slasher that in my brain was always backlit with lightning bolts; red herrings galore (that janitor is weird looking...maybe even...slasher weird looking), and a talking killer scene that is over-the-top to the point of transcendence.

We need to talk about that scene real quick. The killer is SPOILER Rebecca Gayheart and she commits to this bit beautifully. By this point in the movie, I was not a fan of Alicia Witt or Jared Leto’s characters and when Gayheart is mocking her and flirting with him, it’s hilarious. My favorite lines Gayheart delivers are “Lucky for you MISS THANG, I have a visual aid”; “We would be so fucking hot together, Paul”; and, of course, “DING DING DING DING DING!” after Witt guesses one of Gayheart’s questions correctly. It certainly helps that Gayheart has a Magenta from Rocky Horror Picture Show hairdo in this scene to signify she’s crazy. Gayheart’s character gets shot, falls out of a second story window, and then somehow climbs into the back of Witt and Leto’s getaway car where she attacks them, is thrown through the windshield/off a bridge and into a river. Then (in a twist) she survives and ends up at a new college with a different group of friends who are all hanging out chatting about urban legends.
I’m a little bummed Urban Legend didn’t do anything with the “Black Dog” UL (Gayheart amusingly calls it that abbreviation during the climax) and used “Bloody Mary” only as part of a dumb early jump scare. I guess I’ll have to watch the sequels now (which I’ve not yet seen) since the third entry is actually titled Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. Whoo Ah! I might be revisiting Urban Legend at just the right time. I listen to a lot of podcasts that heap praise on deconstruction of (sub)genre, but every time I hear that I think how admirable it also is when a movie is simply a strong example of what it’s supposed to be (the miracle of Scream and Scream 2 are they work as “the thing” and “deconstructing the thing”). Like fun, sincerity endures, too. Because of that, 20 years later Urban Legend no longer feels cynical.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I'm not the one who loves Urban Legend! I missed it when it came out, but I caught up with it this year and it's SO MUCH FUN! Kind of makes me want to watch every teen horror movie from 1998-2001 just in case there are other good ones I wrongly dismissed.