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.

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