As surely as the aughts have been the decade of torture porn for horror movies, horror in the nineties was defined by the fast-burning phenomenon of Wes Craven's self-parodic horror satire of 1996, Scream. The humbly budgeted, hugely popular film was an ironic deconstruction of the horror flick, reenacting its archetypes in a jokey plot cum critical lecture on the genre. Soon, Hollywood was greenlighting any horror script with a whiff of irony that still managed to be what it had to be: a sex and violence showcase with an ensemble cast of nubile youngsters willing to get bloody. Two beneficiaries of the Scream craze were screenwriter Silvio Horta, fresh out of film school, and 26-year-old director Jamie Blanks, who teamed for Urban Legend.
You've gotta have a gimmick, or so they say. Urban Legend takes us to Pendleton University, a New England college where a group of obnoxious, disinterested students love to hang out in a student union that looks like Central Perk, speculate on the fabled sorority hunting-knife massacre about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and goof around in the class of folklore professor William Wexler (Robert Englund, Freddy of Craven's Nightmare films). The morning after the deja-vu death of their classmate, the students receive a lecture on urban legends, the hyperbolic cautionary tales told as breathless truths. Natalie (Alicia Witt), her insecure friend Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart), party-hearty couple Sasha and Parker (Tara Reid and Michael Rosenbaum), and insensitive brute Damon (Joshua Jackson) are slow on the uptake that their friends' death resembles a well-known urban legend, but one of the group dies, the theme-murder evidence can no longer be ignored.
Unless, of course, you're an authority figure, like the school's stuffed-shirt dean (John Neville) or campus cop (Loretta Devine), the latter secretly hoping to try out the moves she's learned from Pam Grier movies. It's up to Natalie to take the initiative to investigate, which she does in cahoots with Paul (Jared Leto), an ambitious campus newspaper reporter who dropped Journalism Ethics. Everyone's a suspect, though anyone who has ever seen a horror movie will immediately eliminate the most obvious candidates, like the prominent character credited only as "Weird Janitor" (Julian Richings). The gig here, as in so many modern horror movies, is the creative death: the supposedly fatal chemical reaction of pop rocks and soda, the gang initiation involving flashing headlights, or the murderer secreted in your personal space all along (a la When a Stranger Calls).
While never telling much of a story or being particularly inspired, Urban Legend is the kind of movie that's perfectly "watchable." One reason is the comfortingly recognizable bound-for-stardom cast that (whoops) ended up firmly in the middle of the Hollywood pack. Of course, by replaying formula (hook and in-jokes aside), Urban Legend proves it's no Scream. Blanks loses at least a generation of quality in going after Craven's fans. Nothing does more damage to the film than the killer. When the villain's fluffy-hooded parka finally comes off ('cause every killer needs a costume to go along with the gimmick), it's a reveal more absurd than the killer's highly organized and effective spree.
Before that (double) climax, which has all the entertainment value of a frying pan to the head, Blanks keeps things moving with an admirable sense of humor about the non-cancer-curing proceedings. The well-staged prologue with Natasha Gregson Wagner and Brad Dourif (stuttering like a middle-aged Billy Bibbit) is a satisfyingly cruel short film, scored mockingly to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart ("Turn around..."). Even the cheap shot against Jackson's home at Dawson's Creek is good for an unexpected laugh. Though most of the horror sequences tend to the pedestrian, a horrible dorm-room violation has the definite creep-out power of the nasty campfire tale. When all is said and done, Urban Legend is a time-waster, with an insulting ending that unfortunately takes it down a few pegs.
One of a trio of new horror Blu-Rays from Sony, Urban Legend comes in a very nice transfer unblemished by dirt or digital compression artifacts; rather, the mostly dark and stormy proceedings come through with a clarity that preserves the filmmaker's original vision. The sound elements get their proper separation and balance in a new TrueHD 5.1 surround track.
Of course, this Sony disc is BD-Live enabled, with special content available on the web. Ported over from the previous DVD release is a Director's Commentary that's actually a lively roundtable with director Jamie Blanks, screenwriter Silvio Horta, and star Michael Rosenbaum, showing the same questionable sense of humor heard on Smallville commentaries. These three trip all over the map, but their horror geekiness is a darn sight more fun than the typical dry commentary tone, and it's plenty informative about from whence the film came, how, and why.
Also included is a "Making-Of Featurette" (10:09, SD) with a highly unusual structure. It's certainly packed, including in its ten minutes narrated B-roll; post-production composing, ADR, and scoring sessions; and an omitted sex scene with Parker and Sasha. The featurette includes much non-optional audio commentary, mostly by Blanks. Lastly, Sony includes previews for Starship Troopers 3: Marauder and 21 (unfortunately, no trailer for Urban Legend).
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