Remember when I said I would not, under any circumstances, review slasher films? Well, a slasher has sliced its way in (See what I did?). It’s mild compared to others out there, but it’s still a slasher.
Yep, we’re talking about 1998’s Urban Legend. This movie came out when I was in college. It’s about college students. I knew a guy who looked a little bit like Jared Leto in college, except he was a physics major instead of a journalism student. We never dated, although his twin brother and I had mad crushes on each other. So yeah, seeing this thing was a foregone conclusion at the time, and appropriately enough, I watched it with a huge group of college friends.
For those who haven’t seen it, the movie appropriately opens on a dark, stormy night. Student Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is on her way back to campus grooving to Bonnie Tyler when she suddenly runs out of gas and has to pull over at the next gas station. The attendant is creepy as all getout, but Michelle tolerates him until her asks her to come inside the shop on the pretense of talking to her credit card company. Michelle freaks out when the guy locks the door and bolts, while he stammers out that there’s someone in the backseat of her Jeep. One guess as to what happens next.
Next we see the student lounge at the tony New England school, Pendleton University, where a group of students are sitting in front of the fire speculating about the murders that took place at the school twenty-five years before. Stanley Hall, the building where it happened is now boarded up, and legend has it anyone who walks up to it and says “Bloody Mary” five times will invite certain demonic trouble.
Natalie (Alicia Witt) and her friend, Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart) try it but then lose their nerve when they get to the fifth “Bloody Mary” and a scream comes from inside the building. Naturally, they run like fury.
Safely back in her dorm, Natalie enters her room to find her scary Goth roommate, Tosh (Danielle Harris) having sex with a random guy, so she turns out the light and goes to sleep with her Discman headphones in her ears. Nah, it’s not at all awkward.
Because anniversary and spooky, Natalie’s professor, William Wexler (Robert Englund) dares the class to test a famous urban legend: Never drink a soda after eating Pop Rocks because it makes the intestines explode. Everyone’s afraid to try it but then joker frat boy Damon Brooks (Joshua Jackson) steps up and pretends to drop dead after taking the supposedly explosive combination.
When word gets around about Michelle Mancini’s grisly death, the university does its darndest to cover everything up (another urban legend), but Natalie is especially distraught because she and Michelle went to high school together. Damon kindly offers to take Natalie off campus to get her mind on other things (Read: put the moves on her), and when she refuses, Damon angrily goes off to answer the call of nature. He ends up swinging from the tree above his car after being attacked by a mysterious figure in a hooded parka.
From then on, students who are connected with Natalie in some way keep dying in various urban legend-type scenarios, including her creepy roommate, Tosh. While she finds an ally in former skeptic and journalism major, Paul (Jared Leto), she starts doubting everything she sees and inevitably the walls close in.
So how does it feel to go back to this movie almost twenty-five years later? Well…
Nostalgia-wise, Urban Legend is off the charts. The characters use dial-up instead of DSL or cable to get on the Web. They use Instant Messenger. They have to be offline to check their voicemail. They listen to CDs on Discmen. They look things up in the library instead of on Google. YouTube doesn’t exist yet and neither does social media. Also, Pop Rocks get some nice bits of product placement, having a prominent role in two key points of the film.
None of the datedness hurts the film, either. It definitely ups the tension when none of the characters have cell phones and have to manually roll up car windows when a murderous parka-clad psycho is headed straight for them.
And it’s great seeing what’s basically a lineup of late-nineties and early-2000s Gen-X and Gen-Y stars in their ingenue prime. Like Joshua Jackson, who filmed Urban Legend while on a break from Dawson’s Creek, and the movie of course capitalizes on his then-newly minted hit show: In one scene he turns on a car radio and flinches when “I Don’t Wanna Wait” blasts out. The joke has not worn exactly well, particularly for those who have only watched Dawson’s Creek with that unfailingly generic Jann Arden song replacing the peerless Paula Cole classic.
It’s also fun seeing Michael Rosenbaum, who went on to play Lex Luthor on Smallville, except that he has hair in this movie. And if anyone only remembers Tara Reid from the Sharknado franchise, well, we’re not at Asylum anymore, Toto.
As a movie, in most respects Urban Legend is a big ol’ dud. There’s not really much of a plot; it’s just a matter of when the mysterious killer is going to strike next. The movie loooooooves cheap jumpscares. And the urban legend thing is only incidental to the final wind-up of the movie, which employs the age-old revenge device, and the culprit isn’t exactly a shock. All I’ll say is this: Rebecca Gayheart can get truly scary if she wants to, which, at the time this movie came out, was kind of funny from the girl who was best-known for Noxema commercials.
In its favor, though, the movie doesn’t ascribe to the Last Girl Standing trope so beloved by the horror genre (there’s a Last Boy Standing as well) and we’re left with a little hope that the victims have a shot at happiness after their traumatic experiences. Overall, it’s a good guilty pleasure movie best seen with Chinese takeout on a rainy night.
A new “During World War Two” is coming up next week. Thanks for reading, all, and have a good weekend…
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