Upon its release “Urban Legend” was panned by critics as a cheap knock off of “Scream” and although it more than made its money back in terms of its budget, it was also not highly regarded by audiences. The numbers, to this day, pertaining to the film as listed by sites such as “Rotten Tomatoes” are abysmal. I knew I had seen it, at some point, after it was on cable, but I had no clear recollection of the film, so I sat down to watch it. I wanted to see if I would agree with the negative reputation it has and continues to receive.
Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is driving back to her college campus, located in New Hampshire. She realizes that she’s out of gas and pulls into a station. The attendant, played by Golden Globe and BAFTA winner Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), takes Michelle’s credit card. He returns a moment later to tell her that the credit card company wants to talk to her. When she steps inside the building, he locks the door. Michelle sensing that she is in danger, sprays his eyes with something, smashes a window and flees. What she doesn’t know, because Dourif’s character has a bad speech impediment, is that he wasn’t trying to hurt her, he was trying to help her. As she drives away, he yells out to her that there is someone in the back seat. The scenario that took place is an urban legend. (As an aside: Brad Dourif voices the killer doll Chucky in the Child’s Play movies).
The deaths in the film, when they occur, are all taken from urban legends. I found that to be an interesting approach, instead of having a killer on the college campus murdering students, which has been done before. Providing some background to the viewer, without getting into straight exposition, is a scene in a folklore class toward the beginning of the film. The class is taught by Professor William Wexler, who is played by Robert England (A Nightmare on Elm Street).
Wexler is hiding something from his past, an incident that Dean Adams (John Neville) wants him to keep quiet about. The dean also wants the story about what happened to Michelle forgotten as quickly as possible. He has the campus security officer, Reese, a role acted by Emmy winner Loretta Devine (Grey’s Anatomy), confiscate all of the school newspapers which feature a full length article on Michelle’s murder. The situation angers college journalist Paul Gardener portrayed by Oscar winner Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).
Paul is among the group of friends that the killer will target throughout the film: Alicia Witt (Friday Night Lights) plays Natalie Simon. She is a smart, attractive girl, who doesn’t have the best living situation on campus. Her dorm mate Tosh (Danielle Harris) is a temperamental goth, who takes sedatives, which don’t seem to calm her down. Fortunately for Natalie she has her best friend Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart) to lean on. The two are fiends with the college’s talk show host Sasha (Tara Reid), whose every listener wants to talk about something that is sexually related. Sasha offers advice and witty comebacks to her callers. Parker Riley (Michael Rosenbaum) and Damon Brooks (Joshua Jackson) are fraternity brothers, who don’t take much seriously. Soon after Michelle’s murder more killings begin to occur. Can the killer be stopped? (As an aside: Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), as well as Golden Globe nominee Jennifer Love Hewitt (The Client List) were offered and passed on playing the part of Natalie. Furthermore, Sarah Michelle Gellar was going to play the role of Sasha, but she had to pass on the part because it conflicted with her shooting Schedule on Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
“Urban Legend” was directed, in his directorial debut, by Jamie Blanks (Valentine). The screenplay was written by Emmy nominee Silvio Horta (Jake 2.0). The film premiered on September 25, 1998. Parts horror, mystery and thriller, the movie has a runtime of 99 minutes.
I certainly don’t consider the film a classic, but nor did I think it deserved the vitriol that was originally directed at it. I’ve seen a lot worse horror films, that garner a good deal of underserved praise, in my opinion. As I stated earlier, I liked the approach to the plot that was taken, because, at least at the time, it was different. It has been done since in other films and on television shows. “Urban Legend” was followed by two sequels, “Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) and “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005). A planned reboot of the franchise was announced this past February and will be directed by Colin Minhan.