Reviewed by: Brian A. Gross
Starring: Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Natasha Wagner / Director: Jamie Blanks
“Urban Legend,” a film by Jamie Blanks, is a project that shows ambition and panache, but in the meantime can’t resist winking at us periodically to let us know that it’s just a movie. It is the story of six coeds who are involved in a campus murder mystery involving urban legends. The ensemble features the lovely Rebecca Gayheart (Brenda) as the sensitive friend, Alicia Witt (Natalie) as the nice girl with secrets, Tara Reid (Sasha) as the trashy nympho, Micheal Rosenbaum (Parker) as the funny and cynical party guy, Jared Leto (Paul) as the cute and brash reporter and Joshua Jackson (Damon) as the crazy frat boy.
The setting is the fictional New England campus of Pendleton University. The trouble begins as a young woman is driving home one rainy night and is decapitated by an ax-murderer from her back seat; at the same time Professor Wexler (Robert Englund of “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher fame) is starting his course on urban legends. He explains the history of them as though they trace back to our very roots as a people in the brave new world, though they really reflect the modern zeitgeist of shock, told by the party raconteur. His explanations are laughed at until the bodies start piling up.
The murders continue on campus until only two of our lovely young group are left; though you didn’t hear that from me. They are carried out gruesomely and the clues lead the viewer astray at every turn. This crowd is not interested in true mystery. They are the creators who don’t obey the rules they set forth in the world they created and, presumably, no one minds. The rule of thumb for a comedy is simply “was it funny?” so then the rule for these hip horrors should be, “was it scary?” The short answer is no. The frights are heart-leaps at shockingly loud sounds in key scenes; the kind that are forgotten moments later. It is the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food.
The very title of the film suggests the playful and frightening spook stories that we hear, but the story here is a ruse; it isn’t even a playful ruse to wit. It is illogical, self-serving and straining to be hip. The cliché’s abound gleefully: The university’s staff of the shady janitor; the staunch Dean who sweeps every disturbing improbability and murder under the proverbial rug; the eccentric ne'er-do-well cop (this time campus security). The postmodern marriage of the beautiful 20somethings—generally with television experience—and scripts that don’t call for actors, but recognizable faces, does tend to have box office rewards, however. This is not Oscar-courting territory but rather Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards work (with two of the four nominees in recent years being same-sex kisses).
The self-conscious humor doesn’t fare much better to those purposeful with the critical impulse. When Damon starts his car, only to hear the pop song “I Don’t Want To Wait” come blaring out, he shuts it off. It is the title song of the television show Dawson’s Creek which he has a starring role in. Later there is a joke about a participant in a campus urban legend being the Noxema girl; enter Ms. Gayheart who has been its television spokeswoman for several years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above bingeing on eye candy occasionally but I need a good meal sooner or later.
Violent content: less gore than your typical slasher movie but still more blood and mayhem than your typical viewer will be comfortable with (bloody axes, hanging, choking, bloody bodies, smashed cars, impaling body parts, etc). Sex/nudity: Several scenes of sex (one graphic) with Natalie’s roommate and some frank sexual talk by Sasha. Language: Normal levels of street language for a mainstream release (about two dozen instances of crude language).