Urban Legend (1998) **
Lately, I’ve been feeling the urge to go back and check out some of those late-90’s horror and sci-fi movies whose previews made me say, “Hey! I’m going to need to see this, once it makes its way to the $1.50 theater,” but which, for some reason, I never got around to. Some of these-- Bats, for example-- crashed and burned too rapidly for me to follow their progress, seeming to have survived in first-run theaters for all of a week and a half before their distributors decided to put them out of their misery. Others, like The Faculty, I just sort of forgot about. Urban Legend, I think, was one of the ones that I forgot. Having now seen the thing, I have a sneaking suspicion that my subconscious mind was trying to tell me something.
I bet you’ve heard this one before. An attractive young woman is driving alone at night down a road on which she seems to be the only traveler. Without warning, she is beset by two difficulties at once: a sudden thunderstorm and the emptiness of her gas tank, which she apparently forgot to check before she went driving. She pulls into a rural gas station (and let me tell you, something at the back of my brain started seething in impotent fury when it saw that Spring of ‘98 price tag on the gas pump-- $1.14 a gallon, for Christ’s sake!), and asks the decidedly creepy attendant to fill up the tank. He sets up the pump, takes her credit card, and heads back into the station. A few minutes later, the attendant emerges and asks the girl to come inside; her credit card company is on the phone, he says, and they want to talk to her. When she reluctantly complies, the attendant surreptitiously locks the door to the station behind them. There is, of course, no one on the phone from the girl’s credit card company, and she understandably panics when she sees that the door is locked. She hoses the attendant down with pepper spray, smashes the plate-glass door of the station with some big, heavy object, and runs to her car. The attendant gives chase, and as the girl speeds off down the road, he manages to overcome his severe stammer just long enough to shout, “There’s somebody in the back seat!” Of course, the girl can’t hear him by that point, so she is taken completely by surprise when she sees in her rear-view mirror someone in a big winter parka looming up to kill her with a double-edged axe.
It’s a good beginning for a movie that is not. The girl in the car had been a student at Pendleton University, and her death is only the first in a series of murders committed there according to the plots of famous urban legends. What’s more, all of the victims are friends of a girl named Natalie (Alicia Witt, who played the über-creepy child sorceress in Dune). She and Michelle (victim #1) had been co-captains of their cheerleading squad in high school. The next victim is her friend Damon (Joshua Jackson of Scream 2 and the TV show “Dawson’s Creek”, who would probably like us all to forget that he was also in all three Mighty Ducks movies), Pendleton’s most notorious practical joker, who happened to be enrolled in the same class on urban legends as Natalie. Then, it’s Natalie’s hot goth roommate, whose murder weaves together the plots from two separate legends. Natalie naturally starts to think that some sort of urban legend serial killer is targeting her, but nobody will believe her. “Oh, come on!” you say, “Not even college administrators would be so stupid as to miss a connection so obvious!” but Urban Legend actually has an excuse for this behavior that is not completely off the wall. First, the gas station attendant was arrested and charged with Michelle’s murder; second, Damon’s practical jokes are often so complex, and his grasp of their emotional impact on his “victims” is so limited that nobody would put it past him to fake his own death that way-- and after all, it’s the weekend and Damon often disappears from the campus on the weekend; finally, the killer cut the goth girl’s wrists, and everybody knows goths are prone to suicide, right? (Hey, the girl was even on lithium!) So Dean Adams (John Neville, the “Well-Manicured Man” of “X Files” fame), who seems to be on loan to Urban Legend from some Italian Jaws ripoff (and who will ultimately meet the prescribed fate of all such characters), has a ready-made excuse for ignoring evidence that points to a conclusion that would be fiscally inconvenient for his school. (I mean, would you want to enroll at Mad Slasher University?)
So what about the suspects? We’ve got a veritable battalion of them here. First, there’s Professor Wexler. He teaches Natalie’s urban legends class, he was the only survivor of a massacre in a now-disused Pendleton dorm 25 years ago, and he’s played by Robert Englund (the modern equivalent of saying he’s played by Vincent Price). Then we have the Sinister Rat-Faced Janitor (you mean to say we’re still ripping off Prom Night after all these years?) whom we suspect on the grounds that he’s a sinister rat-faced janitor. Finally, we have Natalie’s friend Paul (Jared Leto, who went on to play victim Paul Allen in American Psycho). He’s a journalism student and a reporter for the school newspaper, so he has to be an ethically challenged scumbag, perhaps sufficiently ethically challenged to go on a killing spree so that he’d have something spectacular to report. I’m not going to reveal the killer’s identity, not so much out of a desire to preserve surprise for you as because I want you to be able to see with fresh eyes how completely fucking stupid the ending to this movie is. All I’m going to say is that one “shocking twist” wasn’t enough for these numbskulls-- they wouldn’t be satisfied with less than three!
I don’t know. I don’t want to be too hard on Urban Legend, which at least plays it pretty straight as a horror movie, an approach that is to be heartily commended in this age of Leprechaun and The Dentist, in a decade in which even the Cenobites of Hellraiser were turned into wise-cracking, self-parodying bad-asses. But that fucking ending, man! That ending could ruin anything. And there’s just something about the way the new crop of slasher movies is being handled that bugs me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the casting these days is so heavy on the TV stars, particularly stars from the UPN and WB networks. All I know is that Urban Legend and Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer are somehow too slick for my taste, forged years ago in the grimy crucible of 70’s and 80’s gore movies. But I have to say the rent-a-cop who wants to be Pam Grier is a nice touch, and it was cool to see the promo poster for Gaunt’s fourth album on the wall in the college radio station (though a poster for one of the first three would have been even cooler).