Don’t say her name: A critical review of “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary” (2005)

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.

The forgotten myth: A critical review of “Urban Legends: Final Cut” (2000)

“Urban Legends: Final Cut” is, in many ways, the perfect example of a studio sequel, and that is not always a good thing. On the one hand, you have increased budget and slick production. On the other hand, you have a dip in narrative quality and a rehashing of what was safe about the first film–some of the same with less of the good. Either way, you have a film that feels dislocated from its predecessor.

Taking place on a different campus with a different cast of characters, “Final Cut” tells the tale of Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison), a film student looking for a final project. She finds inspiration in a local legend about a killer who executed victims in the style of urban legends. Grabbing a bunch of students and faculty–and seemingly no script and a limitless budget of convenience–Mayfield starts shooting. She quickly realizes that someone is stalking the sets and murdering members of her cast and crew. She’ll have to figure out why to survive, as well as win the school’s coveted Hitchcock award.

There are a couple of interesting things about “Final Cut.” We still get people-before-they-were-famous (Eva Mendes plays best-lesbian-friend, and she fares better than she did in “Children of the Corn V”). The design is also fine. Atmospheric environments range from an atmospheric crumbling clock tower with statues covered in plastic tarp to a mysteriously misty mine and a cheesy sci fi flick film set (the direction, by editor John Ottman, is acceptable).

The best scene is a tense chase through an empty recording studio. There is a sense of the artificial hanging over the proceedings–everything is film sets and practice halls–which plays into the concept of constructed reality, much like urban legends themselves. Or at least it would if the film bothered to explore it.

Because a film called “Urban Legends” isn’t supposed to be about environments. It’s supposed to be about…well, urban legends. However, unlike the first film, there is no big emphasis on the titular tales. That’s bad because it misses the point, and it’s bad because that high concept is what shielded “Urban Legends” from a lot of its weaknesses.

We open with a passing reference to the mile-high club–does that count as an urban legend?–and then we’re into the killing. I have no problem with the killing. What I have a problem with is have you heard the story of the killer on the plane? Did it happen to a friend of a friend of yours? Because it didn’t to one of mine.

The misty mine? Here it’s barely connected to the legend of the dead body used as a carnival prop. The sci fi movie set? Is “Plan 9 From Outer Space” an urban legend now? The clock tower? They don’t even bother tying it to the legend of the girl who ate pop rocks in a clock tower and then her dog turned out to be a microwaved sewer rat…

OK, so there is stealing the kidneys in the ice bathtub, but didn’t the first film already do that one?

Another break from the previous film is the costume, which has been changed from an overstuffed parka to a fencing mask. Why? Admittedly, the new look isn’t bad and the old look wasn’t the most creative costume in the world. But it wasn’t bad either, and by dumping it its robbed of any chance for development or connection. It has no chance to be iconic. Like a lot of “Final Cut,” it’s wasted opportunity.

Also, don’t expect to see any character actor cameos. In fact, the characters are all pretty unsurprising for a horror film–no bonus points if you can figure out whether the goofy nerds or the lesbian are going to get killed–but even those don’t feel like they necessarily came out of a local legend, like the creepy janitor from the first film. Also, the revealed villain is a lot less fun, and what fun is a horror film without a fun villain?

Oh well. One thing the movie keeps up from its predecessor is borrowing from the “Scream” franchise. This one is appropriately more “Scream 2” than “Scream,” given its continued collegiate setting plus its making-a-film-within-a-film framework. It even bleeds a little into the Hollywood self awareness of “Scream 3,” which was released earlier the same year, so maybe it’s a case of great minds thinking…along similar lines (the screenplay was by occasional partners Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson; Boardman would eventually work on the script for “Scream 4”).

Watching Mayfield’s film project unfold feels like less like watching a meaningful narrative and more like watching a series of messily strung together murders. In many ways, it mirrors the viewing experience of “Urban Legend: Final Cut” itself.

A friend of a friend of “Scream”: A critical review of “Urban Legend” (1998)

“High concept” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Sometimes, you just really want a movie to be what it says on the label, and you don’t mind characters noticing that, yes, this does indeed look like that one thing that happened to a friend of a friend of yours. Allegedly.

“Urban Legend” is about as high concept as a thriller can get. Simply put: A serial killer is murdering people the style of urban legends. Slightly more detailed: Natalie (Alicia Witt), a student at Pendleton University, is finding it hard to hold onto roommates. They keep getting murdered in ways reminiscent of campus urban legends. Despite her friends (including Jared Leto, Tara Reid and Rebecca Gayheart) telling her she’s just being paranoid, Natalie starts investigating the history of the university. As they dodge axes and choking dobermans, they’ll all discover someone in their circle has a mysterious past as well…

Hitting theaters at the end of the 90s, “Urban Legend” clearly owes a lot to the meta-fictional observations of “Scream” (and, given its setting, it probably was paying attention to “Scream 2” as well). It’s not an unfair comparison. “Urban Legend’s” examination and use of urban legends allows it to tread similar-yet-distinct ground as “Scream” did with horror cinema. And it couldn’t have hurt that Gayheart was hot off the set of “Scream 2.”

Actually, the cast is fantastic across the board, and horror fans could watch it for little else and be all right. Robert Englund (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) plays a smart-ass anthropology professor; Brad Dourif (“Chucky”) plays a suspicious gas station attendant; Julian Richings (“Cube,” among others) plays a creepy janitor. Even John Neville gets into the fun as a cranky dean. Curiously, both Dourif and Witt appeared in David Lynch’s “Dune.” Not sure what to make of that…

The film also owes a little bit to “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” and not just because of the college-age kids who are maybe more than they seem and their inappropriate use of meat hooks. The design of the killer aims for simplicity rather than flash–it’s just someone in a snow parka. It might not be as iconic as Ghostface, although it does create a little dissonance, since no one else is dressed for snow. Either way, and it gets the job done, and it has fun doing it.

In fact, that might be the best summing up of “Urban Legend.” It’s taken some flak over the years for being derivative of exactly the films we’ve mentioned, but it has a novel spin on what came before, and it certainly has a good time. The killings are fresh and frequent, and anyone at home who is interested can play “spot the urban legend,” since we cover some of the biggies, including the killer in the back seat, high beams, even Pop Rocks and Coke. Some smaller ones are even referenced here and there, turning “Urban Legend” into a decent primer on modern urban folklore, as well as a fun slasher flick.

For social historians who are less interested in body counts, there’s a summing up of the decade as well, and not just because the campus coffee shop looks like Central Perk. “Urban Legend” is one of the last opportunities for a slasher film to just be a clever slasher film and not feel like it was ignoring the wider world. No international crisis. No disenfranchisement on campus. If there’s any complexity in the movie, it’s in its self-aware analysis, not in its social commentary.

“Urban Legend” is not an outstandingly smart movie. It’s still not as smart as “Scream,” and its view of mental illness is about as unnuanced as you can get. But it’s not a stupid movie. The direction (by Jamie Blanks, who’d end up being a slasher director in Australia) is professional and the script (by Silvio Horto, who’d end up showrunning “Ugly Betty,” of all things) is delightfully slick. If you’re in the mood for 100 lean minutes of slasher thriller fun, there are far worse ways to satisfy.

The snow’s coming down (or close enough): December 2019 news

So we’ve made it to the end of another year, Tonstant Weader–at least, we almost have. Just another 31 miserable days before the next miserable 365 start. Or is next year a leap year, and so it would be 366 miserable days?

Either way, and on that happy note, let’s talk news. We are entering the holiday season, and nothing says Christmas quite like the Urban Legend franchise. Actually, I’ve got that backwards. The Urban Legend franchise doesn’t say anything about Christmas, except that it was mostly shot in Canada so there tends to be a lot of snow. You can’t have the holidays without snow, and in Los Angeles, the only real way to get snow it to watch it on a screen.

We’ll be watching the Urban Legend films this December, all three of them. If you’re a horror fan you’ve probably seen the first one, and if you’re a dedicated slasher fan you’ve probably seen two, but did you know there was a third? If not, there’s a reason for that…but we’ll get to it later.

For now, as this blog has mentioned before, if you’re just starting your holiday shopping for the literate horror fan on your list, we’re happy to recommend the anthology Crypt Gnats. It’s a collection of short stories involving ghouls and graves, featuring one written by yours truly.

Finally, if you’re looking for some more Halloween in your life and can’t wait through most of those 365 days we mentioned earlier, go to the literary magazine Furious Gazelle. We got the heads up a little too late for our November news, but last month they posted the winner and finalists of their latest annual Halloween writing contest. There’s a fun one, a serious one and a poem, so whatever floats your goat should be covered. Nothing by me. They’re just nice people, and I’m allowed to be a softy once in a while. It is the holidays, after all.