The mid-to-late 1990s witnessed a revival of slasher films, spearheaded and largely inspired by Wes Craven’s post-modernist feature Scream. Urban Legend was one of the also-rans of the period: while it scored two direct-to-video sequels, it never really captured the audience’s enthusiasm and received middling-to-poor reviews at the time. Returning to the film a few decades later, and it is strangely much more watchable than it used to be. It feels in the main like a naively charming slice of nostalgia; a sort of simple jump-and-scare relic that Hollywood simply does not attempt to make any more. Is it quality cinema? Probably (okay, certainly) not, but I cannot deny this re-watch had a surprising entertainment value to it.
Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt) is a student at Pendleton University when one of her class is horrifically murdered in an act deliberately orchestrated to resemble an urban legend. When other students are killed one by one, Natalie races with student journalist Paul Gardner (Jared Leto) to identify the murderer.
This is essentially comfort viewing. It boasts a cast with some flashy and obvious cameos – Robert Englund, Brad Dourif, and John Neville, for example – and some leads cribbed from popular teen television shows. Alicia Witt (Cybill) is an engaging enough albeit generic lead as Natalie, and her university friends are played by the likes of Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek), Jared Leto (then best known for My So-Called Life), Rebecca Gayheart (Earth 2), and Michael Rosenbaum (later to co-star in Smallville). Everyone is playing their role perfectly to the demands of the film.
Director Jamie Blanks works at a similar level as director. The film is packed with startling loud moments, and fairly decent photography. It also keeps a relatively solid pace, running 100 minutes and never really tiring or feeling slack. A highlight is Christopher Young’s orchestral score – probably best known for composing the score to Hellraiser (1987), Young provides a surprisingly old-fashioned range of compositions here that definitely out-class events on-screen.
While there is much here that is derivative on earlier horror films – particularly Scream – there is also a fairly inventive use of various urban myths and legends to style the murder scenes and offer a point of difference. It helps make the film at least reasonably distinct from the competition.
Not every film is going to be a masterpiece. Some entertainment works with its audience simply because it is disposable: it passes the time, has the requisite numbers of laughs or scares, and then simply wraps up neatly and gets out of the viewer’s way. Urban Legend does what it does; if you are craving a nostalgic trip to the late 1990s, there are worse methods to remember what the average sort of thriller was like.