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Urban Legend

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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The filmmakers of Urban Legend have jumped upon the latest trend in horror filmmaking--slasher movies with a self-reflexive attitude. Instead of providing us with a narrative structure as one-dimensional as the lead characters, the filmmakers have now taken a playful attitude toward the genre (following Wes Craven's lead with Scream). The characters in these new slasher movies (including I Know What Your Did Last Summer) know the conventions of the genre and openly talk about conventions.

In Urban Legend, first-time director Jamie Blanks and first-time screenwriter Silvio Horta provide us with a background of outrageous stories--"urban legends"--about vicious murderers. We get the story of an axe-murderer who hides in the back seat of his victim's car; we get the story of the murderer who calls from within the house of his victim; we get the story of the gang members who drive with their headlights out until someone flashes their lights at them --and then they try to run the good Samaritans off the road; etc. These stories are enacted with glee by the filmmakers as they take delight in sending up the genre while commenting upon the genre's predictability at the same time.

As the stories are evoked, a sudden rash of murders erupts at New England's Pendleton College--recently named the safest college in America. But who is responsible for the murders? Is it the American Folklore instructor (Robert Englund of Nightmare on Elm Street)? Is it the aggressive journalist student (Jared Leto)? Is it the simple-minded janitor? Is it well, the possibilities are virtually limitless. Meanwhile, the beautiful young co-eds line up as victims (including Alicia Witt of CBS-TV's Cybill, Rebecca Gayheart of Scream 2, and Tara Reid of The Big Lebowski), along with a few assorted horny males (such as Joshua Jackson of Dawson's Creek).

However, for all the promise of the scenario, the filmmakers can't escape from the limitations of the genre in which they're working. Essentially, Urban Legend is your run-of-the-mill slasher movie where all the emphasis is placed upon staging gruesome murders. The "urban legends" framework is just an excuse to allow for the mayhem to take place.

The greatest horror films about murderers allow us to become familiar with the minds of the killers--think of Psycho or Peeping Tom. The descent into the minds of the killers made these movies all the more unsettling. But the style of filmmaking on display in Urban Legend avoids any approach that might suggest a psychological background--that is, until the movie's laughable conclusion when the most unlikely character in the movie is revealed to be the murderer. This movie is all about the thrill of murder: all that matters are the set-piece death scenes. Cheap shocks become the norm: at least half a dozen times characters in the movie run into each other--resulting in gasps and laughs from the audience. But the results are hopelessly mechanical.

With movies like Urban Legend, filmmakers are making movies aimed directly for teen-age audiences, with no pretense of promising any chills for an adult audience. The dialogue (or what passes for dialogue anyway) gives us characters wondering about whether a certain boy likes them. Should they go on a date? This might pass for dialogue with an audience consumed by similar issues, but for everyone else it's utter boredom.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

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