Back in September, I went on opening night to see SORORITY ROW, a silly remake of a just-as-silly 1980s slasher. I really don’t like slashers in general, so why this lame remake inspired me, I’ll never know. But inspire it did, and I set myself to the task of reviewing a bunch of slashers, the first round of which were school-based. Several months later, I stopped stalling and actually committed myself to following through on it (hey, I told you I can’t stand slashers). Below is the fifth in this series of reviews.
Back in the 1990s when SCREAM popularized the phrase “post-ironic” with horror fans and Wes Craven told us it was okay for films to poke fun at the genre’s conventions, several films basically stole his concept and cashed in. Clumped in with these films was URBAN LEGEND. This is a crime, as the flick actually hearkens back to a cash in period from a whole decade earlier: the slasher cycle of the early 1980s.
Oh sure, the flick attempts to be cheeky at times; any film from this period that would dare to have Bonnie Tyler singing the line “Turn around, bright eyes” when doing so might save a life is begging to fit in with the SCREAM crowd. But notice that Tyler’s song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came out in the early 80s? I can’t chock this up to mere coincidence. Because at its heart, URBAN LEGEND is a throwback to the times when school-based slashers were a crazy trend in the genre.
It begins in a car on a dark and rainy night, as a female student from Pendleton University races toward the campus. When she runs low on gas and stops at a gas station where a retarded Brad Dourif is the pump jockey, terrible things are bound to happen. Terrible things that, given this movie’s predilections, will set off a chain of slasher killings at Pendleton University. The twist is that our slasher bases every death, from the first to the last, on a famous urban legend. This gimmick distinguishes the flick from all the other school-based slashers I’ve watched in recent months. It’s a nifty conceit, and offers a few touches of originality.
Sadly, it offers the film’s only touches of originality, as everything else makes for a by-the-numbers rip off of a decade-old formula. From the panning shot that establishes the campus, it’s the 1980s all over again. The acting borders on atrocious, from our heroine Alicia Witt to perennial butt of jokes Tara Reid. The film forgives this, as most 80s slashers did, because the characters are all expendable fodder for our killer; but I cannot be so kind to these cardboard cutouts that come straight from the Generic Stereotype Generator. Then there’s the music; if you’re dense enough not to predict every killing long before it comes, don’t worry, as the score will inform you with a sting.
Worst of all, the flick takes its original concept and does absolutely nothing original with it. Instead of offering up a fresh take on the subgenre, the plot plays the whodunnit angle, with several decoys and cheap scares along the way. Students gaze suspiciously at each other, staff and faculty, and we’re supposed to play along in this game of 10 Little Campus Indians. The body count ratchets up accordingly as the flick heads towards its conclusion, where one character will be revealed as the urban legend killer; a superhuman student who has great strength and can absorb huge amounts of damage without losing a step. None of it’s new. It’s all been done before, right down to the creepy custodian. Given all this, the film in spirit is more a remake of PROM NIGHT than the actual PROM NIGHT remake.
Oh, and let’s not forget the dialogue: “You guys, what if there is a lunatic on campus?” It really does speak for itself.
I have to give credit where it’s due. One place where this film was far ahead of the curve was its use of cameos. Danielle Harris and Robert Englund show up in small roles long before it became fashionable to do so. Add Dourif’s inspired performance as the pump jockey, and that’s a triple threat of genre studs. Watching the flick for this review, I kept looking for Dee Wallace.
Does all this make the film worth watching? If you’re a slasher junkie, yes. You’ll salivate as you watch an old formula done with slick cinematography and “real” actors. Sure, it’s all been done, but that’s part of the fun for slasher fans. If you abhor the subgenre, you’re likely not to enjoy. Avoid the film as if it’s the bubonic plague. If you’re a SCREAM fan? You may catch some of the in-jokes, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. Try SCREAM 2 instead. Or SCREAM 3 for that matter. Or even the upcoming SCREAM 4.
If only the commentary made any mention of my theory. Director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta and actor Michael Rosenbaum have fun with it, but a lot of it is nuts and bolts about the script and the production. This would have been a prime opportunity for the three to discuss this film’s place in the tradition of slashers, but it passes on that. Oddly, the three make references to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and PET SEMATARY. The making-of featurette is a dry piece that shows B-roll footage and some post-production stuff, with commentary from Blanks. It does, however, include a completely useless deleted scene. There’s also the trailer. WARNING: Don’t watch the trailer before watching the movie, as it gives away a major gag at the beginning of the film. Bios of some of those involved round out the extras.
URBAN LEGEND came out at a time when SCREAM had the hot hand in horror. It really should have come out a decade earlier, when it would have been more at home with school-based cheapie slashers than hip, post-ironic horror. Watch it right after SPLATTER UNIVERSITY and SLAUGHTER HIGH, and try to tell me I’m wrong.
One more thing: How does a film that calls itself URBAN LEGEND not have a character get eaten by an alligator in the sewer? But that’s another review.
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