Because I’m old (or maybe I should go with “well-seasoned?”), I have fond memories of seeing Urban Legend on opening night in theaters (and subsequently the next night as well, because I was eager to watch it again to see how everything came together now that I knew where the story was headed. I was still in college at the time, making me the prime target for the latest entry in the teen-centric horror wave of the 1990s, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. From the casting to the whip-smart script to its wackadoo finale, Urban Legend is not only a brilliant debut feature film from director Jamie Blanks, but it’s also one of the best entries from that era of slashers.
The concept behind Urban Legend is outstanding, too. Someone on the Pendleton University campus is killing off students using popular urban myths for their modus operandi, with college co-ed Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt) somehow finding herself in the middle of the murder spree. And as her friends (and a few other notable characters, too) are offed one by one, it’s up to Natalie to try and put the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out just who is behind the urban legend-inspired massacre at Pendleton before she becomes another victim of the mysterious hooded maniac.
***SPOILER WARNING: Generally, I don’t post a spoiler warning for films that have been out for several decades, but I do realize that not everyone has seen this one for some reason or another, so from here on out, I’m going to be diving into various aspects of Urban Legend that will reveal certain plot points. That being said, if you’re interested in retaining certain surprises to the film’s mystery, you should watch the film first before proceeding here.***
As someone who loves a good slasher-fueled mystery, Urban Legend remains one of the best-crafted films of its time, as everything about it fires on all cylinders. The script from Silvio Horta takes its premise seriously, but never so seriously that it isn’t willing to let its hair down and have some fun during key moments in the film, which can be a difficult line to walk, but Blanks and his cast all make it look easy here. There’s a real sense of affection for genre films and all their tropes peppered throughout Urban Legend, so much so that you can see where other horror movies directly influenced the (at that time) up-and-coming director as he was crafting his feature-length debut (his three different nods to Halloween II always make me smile).
Also, something that I really love about Urban Legend is how far the story leans into this idea that anybody and everybody could be the killer. And I say this lovingly, but when you start to look at all the false flags raised throughout the film, there are so many red herrings in Urban Legend that it really should have been called Red Herring: The Movie instead. Had Blanks not been having so much fun here with the material, it might have actually bothered me, but as a whole, it doesn’t at all (maybe it’s my lifelong love of Clue and other movie mysteries that has made me immune to copious amounts of misdirects after all these years). Plus, the finale featuring Rebecca Gayheart’s Brenda going full-blown psycho (complete with her Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns-esque hairdo that tells us she is just done taking anyone else’s shit anymore) on Witt’s character, Natalie, is so damn satisfying that the fact that Brenda sets up a slideshow presentation that explains to Natalie what her motivations were for the killing spree is kind of a perfectly genius note to go out on. Again, had the material been in anyone else’s hands, it may not have worked as well, but Blanks walks the line incredibly well in those final moments of Urban Legend that effortlessly mix terror with a hint of off-beat kitsch.
On a technical level, Urban Legend is a showcase for all the talent involved behind the scenes as well. The cinematography from veteran DP James Chressanthis is stunningly ambitious, with sweeping crane shots brilliantly taking advantage of the film’s various settings and locales, adding a sense of grandiosity to the project. The camerawork here also has a great sense of movement to it as well, where you feel yourself being pulled into nearly every setup in a way very few other genre films at this time were able to achieve (the library scene and the exterior shots at Pendleton are great examples of this).
Something else that was very interesting to me upon revisiting Urban Legend was the fact that, much like films like Halloween or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Blanks’ first foray into horror isn’t all about the bloodshed, as he smartly cuts away from several moments of violence that really amp up the tension in the process. In fact, during Sasha’s (Tara Reid) death, watching as she sobbingly declares, “I don’t want to die,” is so much more haunting to me than if we had seen her getting hacked to bits with an axe. That’s not to say that the film shies away from giving us some great moments of horror, but it’s clear that with Urban Legend, Blanks was looking to do far more than just shock audiences with continuous blood and gore.
And as someone who was a teenager during the 1990s, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t dig into Urban Legend’s top-notch cast. Admittedly, the hook for me going into the film back in 1998 was Robert Englund and John Neville, who I loved from his days on The X-Files as The Well-Manicured Man. And yes, Joshua Jackson may have had something to do with it, too, but I blame that on my teenage hormones at the time (although I will fully cop to totally stanning anytime Jackson appeared in anything with blonde hair, especially Cruel Intentions). Surprisingly, though, I wasn’t necessarily a huge Jared Leto fan (I’ve still yet to see a single episode of My So-Called Life), and I wouldn’t discover The Big Lebowski until a year later, so Reid was like a breath of fresh and sassy air to me, which meant I didn’t have a ton of affection for most of the younger Urban Legend cast members going into the film, but I did come out with a ton of love for them afterwards, especially when Michael Rosenbaum came aboard Smallville just a few years later.
There’s no denying that from top to bottom, Urban Legend is a treasure trove of talent, both new and old. I thought casting Englund as a Pendleton professor was a brilliant move that perfectly encapsulated the actor’s gift for gab (no one tells stories quite like Robert does), and Loretta Devine’s performance as soft-spoken but tough-as-nails campus security guard Reese gives the film some real heart and adds a lot of charm to it as well.
With the film turning 20 this year, I’m glad Scream Factory stepped up to show Urban Legend some love, because it’s a movie that really deserves it, and maybe this new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray will help it escape being in the shadow of Scream after all this time (a fate many teen-centric slashers of that era faced). When it came time to dig into all the special features and bonus material, I had an absolute blast with this release, and my biggest takeaways from everything is that one, every person involved with Urban Legend genuinely had a wonderful time making it and were eager to sing the praises of Blanks, and two, that Blanks is deserving of a much bigger career as a filmmaker, and it’s a damn shame he didn’t get to make more films here in the States (he’s from Australia).
For this Blu, there are two different commentary tracks included, but I went with the new commentary that features Blanks, producer Michael McDonnell, and Blanks’ assistant Edgar Pablos (who you also see in the Pop Rocks scene early on in Urban Legend), all moderated by Peter Bracke. The trio share a lot of great tidbits during their discussion of the film, and I learned so much about the making of the movie while listening. Some of my favorite shared stories include how this location was the same as the one used in Police Academy, how the opening shot of the rain was just extra footage they shot from the bridge scene at the end of the film, that Missy Elliott had initially turned down the role of Reese, the fact that they had just 13 weeks from finishing the movie to it opening in theaters (which is just BANANAS, especially because they were working with film back then), and Blanks even takes a few digs at his work in Urban Legend, although I don’t feel like he really had to because it’s an insanely impressive debut that he really should be proud of.
Some other fun stuff they discussed included how seriously Leto took his part despite the contrivances of the script (their words, not mine), that Tara Reid’s character was a tribute to The Fog (Blanks even makes a joke about borrowing Carpenter’s font for Urban Legend, too), and how Jackson turned 19 on set and ultimately took the money from this movie and bought his mom a house. Blanks also called Robert one of the best bits of casting for the entire film, and that he didn’t even have to audition for the role of Wexler because of who he was. Jamie also discussed how he liked to have strong female characters in both of his US films (Valentine being the other), and he was happy that both celebrated women as much as they did.
For the "Urban Legacy" series of interviews, we get an eight-part documentary that digs into pretty much every aspect possible to the making of Urban Legend. We learn about Blanks’ life before helming the movie, and how it was his short film Silent Number as well as a concept trailer for I Know What You Did Last Summer that garnered the interest of Phoenix Pictures when they began seeking out a director for Urban Legend. Around the time of Urban Legend getting picked up, writer Silvio Horta had been a perfume spritzer at Nordstrom’s, and Phoenix had just been launched by Mike Medavoy, but had mostly just dabbled in prestige movies at that point, and as someone who loves film history, I thought all of this information was really interesting to hear.
There is also a ton of other great stuff included in these docs, and we get nearly the entire main cast featured here, chatting about their experiences working with Blanks and with each other (the only folks missing include Leto, Jackson, and the late John Neville). There’s even a great section of the doc dedicated to Urban Legend’s opening scene with Natasha Gregson Wagner and Brad Dourif. which remains a high mark for 90s horror to this very day, and I really enjoyed hearing how they broke it all down during shooting (and there’s some incredible behind-the-scenes footage of Dourif clowning around on set, even doing the “Chucky Possession Chant” at one point, which was awesome).
If there’s one thing I would nitpick, it would be that I would absolutely give anything for Scream Factory to offer up a “Play All” option when they break down their special features as extensively as they do here. As someone who loves going through all the material, it can be jarring to pop back into a menu screen every 10 minutes (especially when you watch movies like I do on a player with a crappy remote, so you have to get up after every single section), so if I have only one Christmas wish this year, it’s to be able to just “Play All” when it comes to Scream Factory’s mini-docs.
I guess I had never realized how many careers were launched because of Urban Legend, so it was great to see that celebrated here as so many of these actors have gone on to enjoy incredible careers over the last two decades. Plus, you can really feel the love from everyone who was involved in the film as they reminisce about the time they spent shooting Urban Legend, and I think that admiration and appreciation shines through in every single scene. I knew I had always enjoyed Urban Legend and Blanks’ work as a director (Valentine is just the bee’s knees and I’m so looking forward to that Blu-ray next year), but this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory helps solidify its place in horror history as one of the best slashers of its time.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5