I recently watched the 1998 horror movie Urban Legend. I don’t know what took me so long – I’ve been wanting to see it for a long time. I can actually remember the poster hanging on the wall of my high school cafeteria back when the movie was still in the theatres, or had just come out on VHS or whatever, and being intrigued by it. It’s not that I ever thought the movie looked particularly good, but as I’ve mentioned before I always loved urban legends, so I thought a horror movie based on the subject must be pretty interesting.
After having actually watched Urban Legend the idea of basing a horror flick on urban legend remains the best thing about the flick which, sadly, is not really all that well executed. Probably inspired by the wave of teen horror/thriller flicks that swept the world in the late ’90s (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer), the movie focuses on a group of college kids at the fictional college Stanley Halls. The kids grow increasingly concerned as it seems a killer is on the loose on campus, killing college students, basing his murders on famous urban legends.
“Turn around, bright eyes”
Like I said, I really like that idea. Our culture has so many great gory legends, they seem to be almost begging to be filmed. And while the college setting was probably chosen chiefly because the movie was to be marketed to teenagers, I also like it that the urban legend horror flick is set in a dormitory milieu. Not only does the college campus serve as the frame of many a popular urban legend (like “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Lights“, which is actually featured in the movie, and the “Our College Has No Virginal Women” one), college dorms also seem plausible as a setting for urban legends to get spread around.
The movie also has a compelling opening scene: A lovely co-ed is driving home one stormy night as she runs out of gas. She stops at a gas station but is unnerved by the creepy looking gas station attendant who happens to have a weird stutter. As he asks her to step out of the car and urges her follow into a locked garage, she freaks out and maces him, rushes to her car and drives off. Alas, as it turns out the poor attendant was only trying to warn her about a stranger hiding in her backseat. Once she’s back on the road, said stranger emerges, killing the girl with an axe. The plot will sound familiar to most people, and the movie pays great hommage to this famous legend, building up the suspense slowly. In a particularly nice move on the director’s part, the girl is listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in her car, featuring the repeated lyrics “Turn around… turn around, bright eyes”, which I find to be a fun, and not too obvious piece of foreshadowing.
I actually think that most of the murder scenes of the movie are pretty effective. It’s simply a thrill to see these familiar old tales acted out, and the “Scratching Noise on the Car Roof” is very nicely done and quite scary, as is the movie’s rendition of the Flashing Headlights tale.
Hey! It’s that Guy!
The piecing together of these scenes into a movie plot with real, fleshed-out characters, however, goes down less smoothly. Urban legend characters are traditionally vaguely defined archtypes who don’t need any real introduction: The Babysitter, The Killer, The Ignorant Tourist etc. Since the urban legend-teller will usually insist that these are people he knows or at least knows of, we will usually be able to relate to the characters even if we know very little about them. This aspect is of course lost in a movie, where we’re constantly aware that we’re watching a piece of fiction played out by actors. So an urban legend movie is dependant on our being able to identify with the characters on screen, and this is a huge problem in Urban Legend. The casting consists almost entirely of secondary actors from 1990s tv-shows. Between Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, Toni from 90210, Gersten from Twin Peaks, and Jordan from My So Called Life the H!ITG-factor gets kind of distracting, and none of the actors really have the presence required for the big screen. I suppose Tara Reid is the one household name among the cast, having starred in a Coen brothers film, but she hardly stands a chance at carrying the movie by herself. The actors also aren’t given much help from the director, Jamie Blanks, who fails to guide his audience sufficiently in the exposition of the film. It took me forever to even figure out who the protagonist was supposed to be, and I never felt that I got to know the characters well enough to actually care about them. I suppose part of this is due to Blanks wishing to keep his audience guessing – will one of the main characters turn out to be the murderer? – but it is ultimately disruptive as it prevents the viewer from truly identifying with anyone.
Coincidence and plot holes
And speaking of the whodunnit aspect of the movie, the big revelation falls somewhat flat. For a while it seemed that the killer would be revealed to be some kind of supernatural power, like a vengeful ghost, and I liked that idea: There is something ghostly in the repetitive, ephemeral nature of folklore. But then the plot took a turn that revealed the murderer to be alive and kicking. And not only is this twist not very interesting, it also reveals a motherload of plot holes in the story.
The thing is that urban legend deaths usually depend on a series of outrageous coincidents - indeed Snopes has an entire section devoted to freak deaths. The killings portrayed in Urban Legend are no exceptions: There is really no way a person could plan something like a reenactment of the Killer in the Backseat, for example. Even if one could plan for the victim’s car to run out of gas in a precise spot, how would one plan for the gas station attendant to have a speech impediment that keeps him from warning the victim? And even if one could plan that how would one plan for him not to have the presence of mind to write down his warning once his voice failed him? Etc. etc. This breaking down of the story perhaps seems nitpicky, but my point is that the plot holes could have easily been avoided: If the director and the writers had allowed for a supernatural explanation of the events, the prosaic planning of the killings would have been irrelevant.
Pop rocks, rollercoasters and remakes
And that’s my general point with this review of Urban Legend. I know it must seem like a bit of a cheap shot for me to be dissing a b-rated horror/slasher movie from 1998 the director of which did not go on to enjoy a glorious career. But I wanted to review it because I do think that the movie showed some great potential and presented an interesting idea for a horror flick. The writers certainly knew their folklore, and the filmmakers had a fun, meta approach to the subject. In some of the movie’s more succesful scenes, urban legends are casually worked into conversation, thus demonstrating how great a power folklore has over our conceptions of reality: A college professor dares a student to consume the alleged fatal combination of soda and pop rocks, and a guy tries to get our protagonist’s attention by telling her that a woman was killed during the recording of The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”. It’s funny and relatable and again; urban legends will never not be fascinating as a subject.
So, while I normally detest the whole “re-make” craze going on in Hollywood these days, maybe it’s time for a re-make of Urban Legend?
I would go see it. And were I to go to the movies by car, I would probably check the backseat twice before closing the car door. So obviously the 1998 movie has managed to do a few things right.