Friday, April 8, 2011

I Am Legend

When Scream came out in 1996, fifteen years had elapsed since the slasher heyday of the early '80s. Enough time had gone by where Scream was able to be the right film at the right time - appealing to Gen-Xers who had nostalgic memories of that disreputable slasher cycle (even if they had been too young to actually see the films in theaters) and Gen-Yers who had found themselves frustratingly late to the party in the '80s - coming of age just as the prevailing slasher franchises of the decade had devolved into shtick.

Scream was that younger generation's first opportunity to witness a horror phenomenon as it unfolded - to create it, even, as they contributed to Scream's sleeper success - while Gen-Xers responded in kind to Scream as a love letter to the horror movies they grew up on. In hindsight, it shouldn't have been a surprise that Wes Craven's comeback film would spur a new wave of slasher cinema.

Of course, it wasn't quite like the old days. Compared to the deluge of copycat slashers that had flooded theaters in the late '70s and early '80s, the slasher wave of the mid-to-late '90s was more like a light splash. Even the most dedicated slasher aficionado has to consult their notes to give a complete list of all the Halloween and Friday the 13th imitators that descended on theaters back in the day but Scream's progeny constituted a much more modest number.

Most famously there was I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and its 1998 sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer; the latest Halloween got more care from Dimension Films than it would've gotten otherwise with Scream and IKWYDLS scribe Kevin Williamson penning 1998's Halloween: H20. That same year, additional slasher royalty - Norman Bates and Chucky - returned to keep Michael Myers company with Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake and the most archly funny chapter yet in the Child's Play saga, Bride of Chucky.

There were other teen-centered horror films at the time that spun out of Scream's success but films like Disturbing Behavior and The Faculty (both 1998) and Idle Hands (1999) had more to do with sci-fi or the supernatural than with slasher formula. Aside from the I Know films, the only original post-Scream slasher film to be a hit of its own was 1998's Urban Legend.

Set on a secluded New Hampshire college campus, the students and faculty of Pendleton University find themselves stalked by a parka-clad psycho who patterns their murders on (da-dum!) urban legends.

Urban Legend was written by Silvio Horta, directed by Jamie Blanks, and - in true post-Scream fashion - was packed with attractive young actors already well on their way to stardom - including Alicia Witt (Citizen Ruth), Jared Leto (TV's My So-Called Life), Rebecca Gayheart (best known for her appearances in Noxzema commercials), Joshua Jackson (TV's Dawson's Creek), Michael Rosenbaum (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and Tara Reid (The Big Lebowski).

In a twist on standard slasher convention in which the Final Girl usually remains unaware of the killer's activities until she's the last (or nearly the last) of her friends left alive, Witt's character of Natalie Simon is an early witness to the killer's handiwork and she spends most of the film desperately trying to convince the likes of Leto's Paul Gardner - a serious-minded journalist on the school newspaper - that something sinister is really going on.

Whereas many slasher films isolate their young casts out of a matter of narrative necessity - placing them in locations far from easy rescue - Urban Legend keeps its characters on campus (and with school still in session - rather than having the action taking place during holiday break, a la Black Christmas) but has the forces of authority so concerned with bad publicity they'll do anything to discredit any theories about a serial killer. And it doesn't help Natalie's case that she can never produce any evidence to her claims.

Her plight gives Urban Legend an added element of a paranoid thriller wherein we know that the heroine isn't lying or crazy but most of the characters around her insist that she is.

Given its premise, Urban Legend is more about its creative, oddball kills than the Scream and I Know films but yet there's no spectacular splatter on display. It's more about the clever ways in which the killer recreates each urban legend. Horta and Blanks milk their premise for as much fun as they can and keep as many red herrings in play as they can before they have to come clean and reveal their killer. That last part doesn't go so well as UL's final act is a mess. It's bad enough that they reveal Rebecca Gayheart's character to be the killer (not to underestimate a woman's abilities but it's impossible to believe that Gayheart has the physical strength to accomplish many of the killer's acts in this film) but at least they should've refrained from having her overact her psycho bitch role.

But hey, I guess it's all supposed to be in fun. It's Urban Legend, not Seven, right? This was meant to be a fun night out at the movies for young horror fans and on that count it (kind of) got the job done.

It's a little odd to watch Urban Legend now and realize that from the vantage point of 2011, it's as dated as the early '80s slashers had been to the Scream era. It doesn't seem possible that so much time has gone by but, yeah, it has.

Take a look at the proof:

While it's a recent enough film that characters surf the net:

...It's long enough ago that research was still done in the library:

Vital information was still best found in books, not on Google:

It wasn't usual to see a character using a pay phone:

Or to see characters getting their news through newspaper headlines, rather than through their Twitter feed:

And references to '70s pop culture were expected to induce chuckles of recognition:

Man...1998 - where the hell did you go?

Being a sucker for college-set slashers (The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The House on Sorority Row), I love UL's campus setting. That right there buys the film some instant affection from me. And Blanks takes full advantage of his film's sizable budget (reported as $14 million) to make this one handsomely mounted slasher pic. No one walks the grounds of Pendleton University in this film without it being the subject of an elaborate crane shot.

Another thing I like about UL is that Blanks shows his stripes as a horror fan. Sure, Scream gave the genre lip service by exhaustively name-checking classic slashers and a Linda Blair cameo was tossed in as well but Blanks gives his film better street cred by casting Danille Harris of Halloween's 4&5 as Natalie's goth roommate Tosh, The X-Files' Well-Manicured Man John Neville as the school's sour-faced Dean, Brad Dourif as the stuttering gas station attendant who tries (and fails) to warn a young driver of the danger in her backseat, and Robert Englund as the film's prime suspect - Professor William Wexler.

I'm just surprised that Blanks didn't cast Prom Night's Robert Silverman in the role of Pendleton's creepy janitor!

Today, it's common for the likes of Rob Zombie and Adam Green to throw as many people as they can from the horror con circuit into their films but Blanks did it before them. He even snuck in a subtle shout-out to Texas Chainsaw Massacre - strain your eyes to check out the background pic in the flier for the Massacre Bash:

It's too bad that Blanks wasn't able to (or willing to) hang on in Hollywood after the failure of his next film, 2001's disappointing Valentine. Back in his native Australia, he's continued to work in the genre and while I didn't see his well-regarded 2007 thriller Storm Warning, I did see Nature's Grave, his 2008 remake of 1978's Long Weekend, and I liked it a lot. He's become a better filmmaker so it seems like that much more of a shame that he'll probably never direct a movie as high-profile as Urban Legend again.

In the thirteen years since its release, time has not turned Blanks' most famous feature into a cinematic legend but as a memento of a horror era long past and seldom celebrated (at least not openly), it's still worth remembering with a smile.


Wings1295 said...

Good review. I was never a major fan of this, it was okay, but I only went back once or twice. Maybe I need to give a serious rewatch and enjoy it more for what it is than what it is not.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, it's not a great film by any means. But I find it to be an entertaining movie to revisit now and then.

Dom Coccaro said...

Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend are all fine films. The slasher boom of the late 90's gets a lot of flack, but there were a few winners mixed in with rotten apples such as Final Stab and I Still Know Blah Blah Blah (ick, what a dreadful sequel).

Jeff Allard said...

Hey Dom, I've often thought about revisiting I Still Know to see whether or not it's as bad as I remember. I don't know how soon I'll get around to that, if ever, but I agree that the three top '90s slasher titles - Scream, the first I Know, and Urban Legend - were all fun flicks. The post-Scream horror boom is forever shit on by fans but screw it - I like a lot of those movies.

Cheap Beer said...

I really enjoyed "Urban Legend", but I actually thought "Valentine" was more of a throwback to the slasher flicks of the 80s. Who doesn't want to see Katherine Hiegl get offed in the first 10 minutes of a movie? It's crazy to look back on these movies with nostalgia when it feels like it hasn't been all that long, but I guess it has. Maybe that's why I am somewhat excited for "Scream 4".

deadlydolls said...

Love this post! I was 14 in 1996 when Scream came out, and you're absolutely right about how it energized horror for a new audience. Unfortunately, so much of the output--including I Know What You DId Last Summer and DIsturbing Behavior--just came off like one-off slashers, but I always did have a soft spot for Urban Legend and The Faculty for their meta takes on the genres. And let us not forget that Urban Legend may very well feature the best work Tara Reid ever did, possibly because it culminates in her getting an ax in her back.

Jeff Allard said...

Yes, I agree that it's Reid's finest work! Kind of like Paris Hilton in House of Wax.