15 December 2003 | timefreezer7
If you liked the Scream and Last Summer movies make sure you don't miss this atmospheric thriller
A local college is being terrorized by brutal murders. The mysterious killer targets a certain group of friends who initially do not realize, or even ignore, the upcoming danger and fall prey to his clutches. They leave their rooms unlocked or go alone in the forest at night. The killer's main victim seems to be Natalie (Alicia Witt) a very typical gal, at least on the surface. The killer stalks her and harasses her continuously and Natalie not only tries to convince everyone about the danger in vain, but has to deal with melanic issues from her past. People soon start dropping like flies and Natalie and her friends are helpless before they all meet their fate. Many years before the incidents the college was rumored to have been plagued by an insane professor who flipped and invaded the students' dormitory killing many fraternity members at one single night. One of the few survivors is proven to be a sociopath weird janitor who is not willing to share his traumatic memories in order to help solving the mystery of this new killing spree. The murderer is much more than a freaked loser copycat who simply wants to rekindle the horror on the 25th anniversary of the alleged massacre, but has an obscure agenda.
Maybe all these plot elements sound stereotyped and nothing special. The premise of a horror movie localized in a college is as old as it gets and has been done to death (no pun intended). Nevertheless there is a special originality in this film. The killer's modus operandi follows a unique pattern of an urban legend methodology. You probably all know what an urban legend is. Folklore stories which are always laying on the verge of reality and myth. Usually they are scary crimes and everyone seems to know or have heard or have read a similar crime although no one seems to have actually enlisted specific names. Stories like these are usually typical frightening tales. One example is the poisoned candy children are frequently treated on Halloween by insane people. Another example is the seemingly normal father who mysteriously brutally slaughtered his entire family over one night, preferably by axe, and disappeared never to be heard of again. The screenwriter plays cleverly with all the cliches and the fears of the dark. The urban legends provide fertile ground for some genuinely original and shocking death scenes.
Urban Legend, despite an intriguing premise, cannot hide its origin. It is a typical 90's horror film mixed with a whodunit subplot, recognizable TV faces and plenty of gore. The film succeeds in being a memorable and above average effort but if you are set to watch it you are bound to find all the stupid overused themes a teeny bopper provides (without nudity though: that is the determinant between 80's and 90's). There are plot holes the size of a volcano crater. For example the police officers are so dim witted that they regard a clearly obvious strangulation which would probably have left distinct bruises on the victim's neck as a suicide. Moreover why, oh why don't they send officers during the climactic tragic events after all those murders. I can accept the fact that the phone lines were dead but couldn't someone just go and ask for help? When they do arrive it is far too late. The cast was also over-crowded and it was obvious that the protagonists were nothing more than screen fillers. It is too bad since their acting skills, which seemed promising, were withheld. For example Jared Leto and Michael Rosenbaum are Paul and Parker respectively. Although the film starts off interestingly with equal screen time, Natalie soon wins the absolute focus and their roles are so small that they end up being extras. Things are even worse for Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart) and Sasha (Tara Reid) who also had shrunken roles and are wandering pretty faces waiting in line to be sliced and diced. Although the suspects are many, the final revelation of the killer is weak, the motives even weaker and of course we have the inevitable cat-lived nature of the killer-who-refuses-to-die escorted by the predictable cliffhanger epilogue with the "TO BE SEQUELED" sign.
An extra detrimental element is the presence of Alicia Witt in an especially important role. Her acting is not awful but it is definitely misguided and fails. Witt is way too calm to convince as a realistic character. After a certain point it is clear that her psychopath stalker has not only killed her friends, but is after her, and she doesn't even show a trace of panic. She DOES try of course to warn the bonehead authorities and she does a little research on the urban legends. The bad thing is that even in the gruesome finale she doesn't seem to fear the maniac even a little bit and even worse she is not the willing-to-fight heroine that Sidney Prescott in Scream was. Now I don't want to be misunderstood, I wasn't looking for Jamie Lee Curtis's overblown vocal pipes but she could have more human reactions, especially after the deaths of her friends. It's as though Natalie had read the victim list and knew that she had a contractual commitment to survive until the end. The only one of the main characters with some substance is Joshua Jackson as Damon. This guy is a derivative from other horror films and strikes as a cardboard cutout: a prankster who teases his friends and is slightly horny. At least Damon has a certain and sensible persona and Jackson is adequate. The funniest aspect of the film is that the cameos are far more successful and memorable than the leads!! Danielle Harris in a short role is the quite trendy Gothic young diva who is the incarnation of the Lust sin, the aged John Neville is the strict and by the rules Dean of the University and Brad Dourif gives an excellent performance in a role which I won't reveal. The best of them is Robert Englund as the clever and a bit creepy Professor who teaches folklore and introduces his students to the urban legends. Professor Wexler seems to be the chief suspect for this horrific situation and although there are sporadic hints throughout the film which point to other directions, Englund virtually dominates the screen even with his absence!!! Of course I won't omit Loretta Devine as Reese the guardian of the University who is very funny and adds the necessary comic relief. Who could have thought? A woman and indeed a black one as the cop/protector. It is another attempt to break a few cliches. Well done casting directors.
Apart from some good performances Urban Legend has many other assets. The opening sequence alone was enough to keep me hooked on as I realized I would watch a great film. The rainy frames and the professional shooting with the distant take angles is enough to pose the threatening tone and warn us about what is to follow. The introductory scene is a stand alone masterpiece. The killer here doesn't have a costume but hides under a winter jacket with a cowl and this gives a realistic touch and a difficulty in pinpointing the culprit since many people have the same type of jacket. The best part of Urban Legend is the setting and the cinematography. The university buildings are bulky and old enough to support a medieval atmosphere which excites our imagination. Further, these baroque aged buildings give a much more scary climate and ensure that no matter how much they run, the protagonists will never get away since the corridors are so long that probably no one is going to hear them scream. But the greatest virtue is the photography which was dreary and gave a sense of a documentary style. The best example to describe the stigma the director tried to pull off are the library scenes. The leads are in a situation reminiscent of the Name of the Rose (lacking the religious undertones of course!!!) and are trapped in an infernal game they cannot escape. The whole point of view of the movie is clearly cinematic and the imaging techniques are much supportive. As I aforementioned the death scenes are fascinating and catapult the adrenaline to heights. Although the character development is bare you feel sorry for the victims (well, OK, for most of them). One surprise follows another as the body count increases.
It comes as a great disappointment therefore that after a chilling 90 minutes period, the last 30 minutes go downhill. The action is very weak, the suspense retreats and we are left with overacting, inept and predictable "plot twists," inadequate explanations and a rather disappointing climax . I mean how could anyone not wonder why the maniac wouldn't just kill Natalie and get over with this revenging mission instead of doing this wild carnage. So be warned: the last half hour is extremely disappointing. Thus, if you are a horror fan who wants an entertaining thriller Urban Legend is a good shot. Despite some letdowns Urban Legend is yet another landmark in 90's horror genre.
URBAN LEGEND - 8 / 10