Perhaps there is no greater urban legend in the realm of horror cinema than the direct-to-video sequel. It is said to appear on the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month, at the very thirteenth hour of the night. Or else it happens by the third or fourth film in a series when the franchise is running out of steam. Either way, it always presents a serious dip in production values and a comparable dip in artistic quality.
Except, remarkably, for “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary,” which has awful production values but, if you have a high tolerance for low budget thrillers, manages to be a better movie in spirit than its predecessor, the slick studio sequel “Urban Legends: Final Cut.”
And you wondered why this blog was reviewing all the Urban Legend movies for the holidays. Because the only way to explain that is via a goddamn Christmas miracle.
The film begins in 1969, when three high school girls are drugged by their prom dates. One of them, Mary, tries to escape. She gets locked in a trunk and left for dead. Half a century later, a new crop of high schoolers start turning up dead. Does it have anything to do with a slumber party where school journalist Sam (a before-she-was-famous Kate Mara) tried to summon Bloody Mary in a mirror? Probably. Sam will use her investigative skills to figure out the source of the murders, their connection to the past and why that one song keeps playing.
“Bloody Mary” is very clearly a direct-to-video kind of movie. The acting ranges from fine to not so fine, the continuity is often noticeably off and the CGI is never good (the spiders!). But it has heart, believe it or not. Taken with the shift from straight slasher to supernatural, some viewers think it was never intended to be an Urban Legends movie.
There’s just one problem with that theory. There are actually urban legends in “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary.” Remember how those tales of contemporary terror were lacking from “Urban Legends: Final Cut”? No problem. “Mary’s” got you covered, from spider bites that produce suspicious zits to humans that lick too to the dangers of modern conveniences, like tanning booths, vending machines and electric fences. There’s even a little Coke-lore. These aren’t top shelf urban legends, but they are stories that used to pop into your email inbox from time to time.
The script was by comic book and horror writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, and the direction was by music video and horror flick director Mary Lambert. This is the first film in the franchise to be helmed by a woman, which might be more important than you think. Overall, “Bloody Mary” is better constructed than it is written, and the muted budget actually contributes to the downbeat, repressed atmosphere. Perhaps “repressed” is the key word.
All the Urban Legend films have had female protagonists, but “Bloody Mary” seems to be doing something distinctly female with its lead. It’s not quite waiting to be rediscovered for its daring feminist message, but it does sort of examine date rape and its lasting, muting impact on victims. This is a horror movie, so of course trauma reaches from beyond the grave, but it also stays with those who survive and live into later life; while Mary disappeared in 1969, one of the other girls committed suicide and the third (played by TV actress and SMC alum Tina Lifford) lives in psychological isolation on the outskirts of town.
Maybe that’s what what really differentiates “Bloody Mary” from the earlier films, more so than a switch to ghost story (or a disappearance of the Scream franchise’s influence…or switching the filming from Ontario to Utah). This movie is trying something different. What it lacks in budget, it attempts to make up in intent. Whether that’s enough to overcome its production shortfalls is up to viewers, but you can’t blame it for not giving it a shot.