Monday, October 26, 2020

Hubrisween 2020 :: U is for Urban Legend (1998)

On a deserted stretch of highway on a dark and stormy night, when not nearly forcing oncoming traffic off the road as she weaves between lanes while fiddling with her SUV’s radio, channel surfing between some sex-themed talk radio with “Sasha Under the Covers” and an oldies station, where she finally settles on a song and bellows along as only someone all alone in a car would do when they think they know the lyrics to some pop tune but aren’t even close, Michelle Mancini finally notices she is terminally low on gas.

Pulling into a secluded gas station, as the torrential rain gets even worse, Michelle (Wagner) is a little creeped out by the frazzled looks of the stuttering attendant but hands over her credit card anyway and says to fill it up. (Meanwhile, I am checking the DVD cover to make sure I’m not watching a science fiction feature instead of a horror movie. I mean, a full service gas station? And gas is only $1.14 a gallon? Wow.) 

Starting the pump, the twitchy attendant seems to notice something before he hurriedly moves inside to run the card -- only to return a few seconds later, saying there’s a problem and the credit card company is on the phone and needs to talk to the cardholder immediately.

Finding this strange, and the stutterer (Dourif) even stranger, Michelle agrees but grabs her trusty can of mace before following him into the office, where the attendant immediately locks the door behind them. Reading this as she is about to be raped and murdered by this apparent degenerate, Michelle freaks out, and then fights him off as the man moves to restrain her from leaving and tries to say something but can’t due to his handicap, earning him a face-full of mace as the girl wrenches herself free, breaks out a window, and retreats back to her car.

Here, the attendant throws himself in front of the SUV to try and stop her, only to be nearly run over as Michelle punches the gas and streaks away, not hearing the attendant as he finally manages to say what he’d been trying to say all along -- that there’s someone hiding in the backseat of her vehicle!

Alas, Michelle will never know how close she was to almost being saved from the grisly fate in store for her as the undetected passenger, adorned in a hooded winter parka, axe in hand, makes themselves known and separates the girl’s head from her body with one fatal swing.

Meanwhile, back on the campus of Pendleton University, where Michelle was a student -- stress on the “was,” several friends have gathered in a coffee shop, where the most animated of the bunch, Parker Riley (Rosenbaum), regales his girlfriend, Sasha Thomas (Reid) -- of Under the Covers with Sasha fame, and her two friends, Natalie Simon (Witt) and Brenda Bates (Gayheart), with the oft told tale of the Stanley Hall Massacre, where some 25-years ago a professor allegedly went nuts and stabbed an entire floor of co-eds to death before comitting suicide, and how Parker’s fraternity commemorates this event every year with an annual booze-can.

Overhearing all of this, crusading campus reporter Paul Gardener (Leto) says this story is a load of bunk, an urban legend, used to scare freshmen, nothing more, nothing less; even though Parker swears it’s all true and the college covered it up, saying Gardener should get on that instead of covering the latest e-coli outbreak in the cafeteria.

With that, Natalie and Brenda bail but on the way back to the dorms, they pass the dilapidated and boarded up Stanley Hall. And speaking of urban legends, feeling frisky, Brenda wants to pull the Bloody Mary gag, where if you say the witch's name five times out-loud her ghost will appear and foretell your death -- allegedly. This they do, though Natalie is reluctant -- especially when it appears they’ve stirred up something. But it’s only Damon Brooks (Jackson), a campus prankster, screwing with them because he’d like to screw them both.

With that option being a big fat no, Natalie returns to her dorm room, where her roommate from hell, Tosh Guaneri (Harris), is currently screwing her latest hook-up, who screams at Natalie to leave the lights off. She complies, and then does her best to ignore the spectacle going on in the other half of the room -- you get the sense this happens a lot, as an accustomed Natalie crawls into bed, dons her headphones to drown out the cacophony of slapping meat and swapping bodily fluids, and miraculously drifts off to sleep.

The next morning in class, somewhat coincidentally, Professor William Wexler (England) expands his talk on folklore and broaches the very subject of urban legends. And as a practical demonstration, he calls on Brenda to eat some Pop Rocks with a Pepsi chaser, which she refuses to do because she fears her stomach will explode when they mix together just like Mikey, that kid from the old Life Cereal commercial -- who’ll try anything, even though Wexler assures he’s alive and well and living in New Jersey.

Here, Damon steps in, but ever the practical joker, he causes a bit of a minor panic when he fakes a seizure as the volatile concoction foams out of his mouth, much to Wexler’s chagrin. Class dismissed.

By now, word has spread around campus about Michelle’s grisly murder. And while the police suspect the now missing gas station attendant is most likely responsible, the campus newspaper’s headlines scream of a possible homicidal lunatic loose on campus. The byline belongs to Paul, who is a little miffed that Dean Adams (Neville) and his chief of security, Reese Wilson (Devine), are currently confiscating all the papers so as not to cause a panic. 

When Paul protests, the Dean warns the only lunatic currently loose on campus is a certain overzealous reporter and to knock any talk of a killer stalking Pendleton right the hell off -- or else. When Brenda, who has the hots for Paul, asks Natalie if she knew the deceased, her friend says no. However, Nat appears shaken by the news as she returns to her room and checks her phone messages -- after kicking Tosh off the phone line, who is none too happy about abandoning her online chat-room. Ah, the days of dial-up internet.

After the beep, Natalie’s mother, having heard about Michelle, wants to know if her daughter is alright. Well, she really isn’t as the girl pulls out an old high school yearbook, which reveals her and Michelle used to be best friends, leaving us to wonder why she would deny even knowing her when Damon shows up out of the blue and apologizes for his lewd behavior the night before, sees something is wrong, and offers that he’s a good listener if Natalie needs to talk.

However, one begins to question the man’s sincerity when he drives Natalie to a lonely and secluded spot deep in the woods to have this talk, where he listens and then tells her about an old girlfriend he had who died after a long battle with cancer, saying how much love he has to give. It’s all a con, though; and Natalie easily detects this end-run of sympathy to get into her pants, calls Damon on his bullshit, and demands to be taken home immediately. And when he tries to press it further, she punches him in the face.

And when he still refuses to take her home, Natalie offers to make it two black-eyes, which finally gets Damon to acquiesce -- only he needs to take a leak first, leaving her behind in the car as he ducks behind a tree, where he lets a few invectives fly about his date as he waters the grass.

Unfortunately for Damon, he doesn’t realize someone in a familiar looking parka has snuck up behind him and gets a noose around his neck, choking him off as he tries to call for help. And is all of this set-up sounding awful familiar to anyone else?

Meantime, back in the car, Natalie yells for Damon to hurry it up until the killer shows himself, marches toward the car, and tries to get in -- only to be thwarted by Natalie, who quickly moves to secure herself in the vehicle. The killer then crawls onto the roof and out of sight, stomps around for a bit, taunts the girl further, and then flees back into the woods. But once he’s gone, a frightened Natalie still hears a strange scraping coming from the roof of the car, panics, slips into the driver’s seat, and tries to get the stubborn car to start, determined to vacate the area with or without Damon.

But unknown to Natalie, this well-worn urban legend is about to come full circle as we cut to outside the car and see Damon is strung up by the neck on a branch from a nearby tree, his windpipe crushed, as his feet struggle to find purchase as they scrape along the roof of the car...

OK, now, a couple years ago I got into the nuts and bolts a bit on what makes an urban legend an urban legend when I reviewed Joshua Zeman’s Killer Legends (2014), a pretty cool documentary, whose purpose was to try and trace several of what has been now foolishly rebranded as “contemporary legends” back to their original “true crime” source. And so, to recap, and we’re gonna stick with the original designation, an urban legend is basically modern folklore that usually had an element of the macabre or an ironic twist to it, grounded in some form of concurrent pop culture, with just a hint of plausibility to keep the gullible hooked enough to keep passing them on by word of mouth from one generation to the next, adapting along as they aged.

And while these oft-told tales were sometimes used as ghost stories, fables, parables or possible explanations for strange occurrences or events (-- like alligators living in the sewer system), they were most often used as cautionary tales that really did happen to a friend of a friend's cousin’s aunt in the town just up the road. And as they aged, they tended to get more explicit, gruesome, and punitive. As a good case in point, let's explore the tale of “The Hook.”

It begins with a young couple parked in a secluded lover’s lane engaged in some premarital necking. And as hormones rage, passions heat up, and a few hickeys are born, the music on the radio is suddenly interrupted by a breaking news bulletin: a mental patient has just escaped from a nearby asylum. And this fugitive has one very distinguishing characteristic: one of his hands is missing and has been replaced with a stainless steel hook -- which he used to murder several people during his breakout.

When the bulletin ends with the authorities encouraging everyone to stay indoors until this lunatic is captured, obviously, the girl is frightened and wants to head home. But the boy, who was 'this close' to getting to second base mere moments ago, scoffs, saying the killer is probably miles away. And as the minutes tick by while they argue about what to do, a sudden scraping outside her door frightens the girl so much the boy finally gives up and drives away. But when they reach her house, there, dangling from the passenger side door handle, hangs a torn-off stainless steel hook covered in blood.

 *whew* They made it, and a lesson was learned: boys, keep it in your pants, and ladies, leave your panties on or you will all be killed. Now, the exact origin of this story is not known but it had been circulating since the 1950s, when teenage car culture really became a thing, and then went national when the story was printed as a letter to Dear Abby back in November, 1960.

But after that, the tale began to change or be embellished: the lunatic suddenly became a mad-dog killer, who had escaped from prison. And as I said, things started to get more punitive as one or both of the teenage lovers now met a gruesome end. Later iterations lost the hook angle altogether, where the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and the boy leaves the girl behind, safe in the car, while he hikes for help and gets killed. Other versions have the same old frustrated sexual encounter, only the boy doesn’t believe the radio announcement, but the girl won’t put out, and he gets out of the car to take a leak before heading home, depending on the teller.

Either way, as the story continues, the girl suddenly hears something scraping on the roof. In some versions, the cops show up and tell her to get out of the car but not to look back and is spared anything further; in others, she finally musters the courage to exit the car and investigate, where the killer is either sitting on the roof, banging the boyfriend’s dismembered head on the hardtop, or the boy’s mutilated body is hanging from a tree and his knuckles or feet were scraping across the roof of the car (-- other deviations have the boy’s blood dripping on the roof). And then, the girl learns too late that this was all just an elaborate ruse to lure her out of the locked car, meaning no survivors this time.

Now, while the makers of the film Urban Legend (1998) would like you to believe that they were the first major motion picture to be based upon or utilize this type of folklore, that is patently false. Horror films had been tapping into the stuff since the Silents, and the Slasher Movie genre, to which Urban Legend belongs, were milking these things dry since the days of Halloween (1978), where babysitters are menaced by an escaped killer, When a Stranger Calls (1979), where the killer was in the house all along and on another extension, and Friday the 13th (1980 and The Burning (1981), which were both loosely based on the urban legend of Cropsey, a mad killer of children, who had a hook for a hand.

Of course, the Slasher cycle had all but petered out by the 1990s but it had a mini-revival with the release of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), which triggered a whole new wave of self-aware mass murder on the big screen, including I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Lover’s Lane (1999), the unsung Cherry Falls (2000), and Valentine (2001) before cratering again with the Scary Movie spoofs (2000-2013).

And in the middle of all that, of course, came Urban Legend, which began as an idea by Silvio Horta, a recent NYU film school graduate currently working at a Nordstrom’s perfume counter. Horta then pitched this idea to Gina Matthews, who was running a writer’s workshop he had been attending. She thought it had potential, and together, they turned Horta’s idea of an urban legend inspired serial killer into a script and began shopping it around when Scream hit big. It soon drew the attention of Neal Moritz, who had produced I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), who also liked the script’s self-aware notions and agreed to co-produce the feature with Matthews and Michael McDonnell -- now all they needed was some money to produce it with.

But no studios were all that interested until a last ditch effort found a lifeline at the newly formed Phoenix Pictures and Mike Medavoy in late 1997, who was also impressed by the concept and marketability of the copycat killer but felt the script still needed a lot of work before filming could commence. Meantime, Medavoy also appointed Brad Luff as the executive producer of the film, and then Luff and Moritz set out to find Urban Legend a director.

Luff was keenly interested in bringing in Jamie Blanks, an Australian, based on his short thesis film; a horror story called Silent Number (1993), which was his take on the old urban legend of “The Babysitter,” who starts getting strange phone calls on a dark and stormy night from a scared young boy who says he’s trapped somewhere in the dark. And while it turns out in this version the caller wasn’t on an extension inside the house, I won’t spoil the big twist. The short is currently streaming on YouTube, and it is pretty nifty, for those interested in following through.

Now, Moritz was already well aware of Blanks, who was on a short list to direct I Know What You Did Last Summer before losing out to Jim Gillespie. Blanks had even gone so far as to make a mock-trailer for IKWYDLS for his pitch, and Urban Legend would be both his consolation prize and directorial debut as he officially signed onto the production in February, 1998.

Shooting on Urban Legend began on April 20th, 1998, in Toronto, with the University of Toronto subbing-in for the New England based Pendleton College (-- which might look a little familiar as Killer Party (1987) was also shot there), and would need to be completed quickly and efficiently to make a September release date.

The opening sequence, where Michelle gets killed, was filmed first, so Blanks could present a completed sequence to the producers early in the production to assure all they had made the right call by hiring him. However, unlike most Slasher Movies, Blanks wanted to keep the violence implied and not very explicit and practically bloodless -- even though the script called for several gruesome set-pieces, feeling whatever the audience imagined would be ten-times worse than anything he could produce on screen, meaning a shot of Michelle’s severed head bounding down the road to punctuate that opening salvo didn’t make the cut.

Thus, most of the kills relied more on stunt coordinator Matt Birman than special make-up effects supervisor Sid Armour as our killer takes a certain familiar urban legend one step further by rigging the rope Damon is hanging from around the tree, Rube Goldberg style, before tethering it to the rear hitch of his car; so when Natalie finally gets it started and punches the gas, the rope is pulled taut, sending the victim rocketing into the sky, where he ultimately strangles to death. 

And when the rope catches, anchoring the car, Natalie jams it into reverse as the killer reappears in front of her, once more stomps on the gas, and backs right up into the tree, turning the car into a paper weight and freeing up enough slack in that rope to send Damon’s body crashing down through the front windshield.

Abandoning the car and fleeing back to campus on foot, losing the killer along the way, Natalie makes it to the security building and tearfully reports to Reese what happened to Damon. But when they return to the scene of the crime, the car and the alleged dead body are gone. In fact, there is no evidence at all that anything -- let alone a crime, has been committed here.

Accused of being on something, an enraged Natalie is insistent that Damon is dead, murdered, and whoever was responsible also attacked her -- maybe the same guy who had killed Michelle! But Reese says that’s not possible because the local police caught the gas station attendant about an hour ago and plan to charge him with Natalie’s murder. With that, Reese pulls the plug and takes Natalie back to campus.

The next day at the coffee shop, a distraught and frustrated Natalie still can’t get anyone to believe her wild tale of what happened last night. Not that something didn’t happen, mind you, but they all feel Natalie was the victim of an elaborate prank put on by Damon, who, Parker points out, was a legendary practical joker -- even using a dummy on several occasions to freak out their pledges. He also points out how the joke resembled an old urban legend -- just as another resembled what happened to Michelle.

Of course, Damon was planning to go out of town that weekend for a ski trip and can’t be reached to confirm any of this, which only adds to Natalie’s escalating paranoia. For not only does she now feel there is a serial killer loose on campus, but a serial killer who might just be targeting her and is making all of those old urban legends a new and deadly reality. And since Reese or the cops won’t do anything about this, Natalie decides to do some amateur sleuthing on her own and heads to the library, where she tracks down The Children's Rainy Day Book of Urban Legends

At this point, Natalie also realizes she’s not alone in the stacks -- but it’s only Sasha, who tracked down a copy of the Kama Sutra, so she and Parker can try out a few forbidden moves later. Together, they crack open the Urban Legends book and read-up on the two stories related to Michelle and Damon’s death -- variations on “A Killer in the Backseat” and “The Hook.” 

Sasha also points out one based on an alleged gang initiation, “High Beams,” where bangers drive around with their headlights off and the first person who flashes them they run off the road and kill. And when Natalie checks the sleeve to see who the last person to check out the book was, turns out it was none other than Damon, meaning it was most likely just a joke after all.

Meantime, back in her dorm room, Goth Girl Tosh is once more on the computer, popping Lithium, and arranging her latest sexual encounter. But when she asks what room they should use to do the deed, the answer is hers as the killer was hiding in her dorm room all along! With that, the killer attacks and they wind up splayed across the victim’s bed. 

But as they struggle, salvation seemingly comes when Natalie returns -- only she misreads the scene, mistakes Tosh’s muffled cries for *ahem* something else, leaves the lights off, crawls into bed, and, well, you know the drill.

Come the dawn, Natalie finds a present left for her, scrawled on the wall, written in blood, which reads, Aren’t you glad you left the lights off? And when she pulls back the sheets on her roommate’s bed, Tosh is there, dead, with her wrists slashed open. Seems the Urban Legends Killer got a twofer on this one.

Somewhat unbelievably, Dean Adams intends to write this suspicious tragedy off as a suicide, saying the girl was a manic depressive and the message on the wall was just a morbid farewell note from a disturbed individual. And when Natalie persists with her inspired serial killer theory, the Dean will not hear it. And since she never actually saw anyone else in their room, having averted her eyes the whole time, thinking Tosh was just having sex again, Natalie is once more forced to let it drop.

However, she soon discovers an ally in Paul, who saw her talking with the Dean and Reese and is hoping for a possible scoop. Here, he patiently listens to her story and her theories about what happened to Michelle, Damon, and now Tosh, and how the Urban Legend Killer might just be after her. Paul is sympathetic, but feels it’s a bit of a stretch tying this all together. Maybe the gas station attendant really did kill Michelle; maybe Damon did just pull off a gag; and maybe Tosh did commit suicide. But if they didn’t, Why is the killer striking now? And why her? To answer that, Natalie keeps grasping at even thinner straws, suggesting it might have something to do with it being the 25th anniversary of the Stanley Hall Massacre.

And with that declaration, she officially loses Paul, who intends to prove that notorious event never even happened, once and for all, by taking the girl to the paper’s morgue to show there is no historical documentation of this incident -- only the bound volume with the right date is missing. Luckily, a plot convenient Creepy Janitor (Richings) is working nearby. Asked how long he’s worked at the college, the answer is too long. And when Paul follows that up with questions about Stanley Hall, the janitor pauses, then says to go and ask Wexler.

This they do, only the professor isn’t in his office. And like any good reporter, Paul jimmies the lock and they start snooping and poking around, where they find a lot of circumstantial evidence that Wexler is a tad obsessed with urban legends -- he even owns the same kind of parka the killer wore. The clincher for Natalie, however, is an axe found in the closet; but Paul says it’s not enough and they have to keep digging -- only they can’t, because they just got busted by Wexler as they try to leave.

Brought before the Dean, Adams finally has the excuse he needed to get the troublesome Paul fired off the campus paper before he can write any more stories about Mass Murder U. As for Natalie, well, he’s done a little digging into her personal file and discovered that she was once on probation after a conviction on charges of reckless endangerment. And since Pendleton usually doesn’t accept students with a criminal record, if he hears any more nonsense about a mad killer they will both be expelled with prejudice.

With his journalistic career going down in flames thanks to her, at this point, feeling she is not being totally honest with him, Paul abandons Natalie. She then seeks out Brenda, who is doing laps in the campus pool. 

But when she spots someone in the same dreaded parka heading right for her friend, Natalie screams a warning and tries to break-out a window separating them -- but it was all a false alarm as this coated figure was nothing more than another swimmer. (The hell? Did K-Mart have a sale on those damnable things or what?! And an off-season sale at that?! More on this in a sec.)

With her friend mentally fraying before her, Brenda finally gets Natalie calmed down enough to where she at last opens up about her relationship with Michelle, why they were no longer friends, and maybe, just maybe, why someone might be out to get her: Seems back in high school, these two besties were out on the road and Michelle wanted to screw around and turned the headlights off -- just like in that urban legend. And when a passing motorist flashed their lights at them, Michelle whipped their car around and started chasing the other driver. And as she flashed her own lights and blared the horn, the other driver panicked and, fearing for his life, tried to get away from them only to lose control and wrecked his car.

Turns out the other driver died due to their reckless actions; and they got arrested, were convicted, and sentenced to a year of probation (-- she had been accepted to Pendelton before this all happened). Natalie hadn’t spoken to Michelle ever since that night, and even though she wasn’t driving it was her car and she still feels partly responsible for what happened. But, she does feel a little better having finally talked about this; and in an effort to continue cheering her up, Brenda suggests they should head on over to Parker’s frat party and the Annual Stanley Hall Massacre Soiree.

Meantime, Paul is packing up his desk at the newspaper office only to discover the Creepy Janitor has left him a present: a copy of the collegiate paper from 25 years ago, which not only confirms there actually was a mass killing at Stanley Hall but Wexler was the lone survivor! And on top of all that, Dean Adams was the one who covered it all up.

Speaking of the Dean, he’s currently in the campus parking garage chewing Reese out for actually doing her job by following up on the current spike of fatalities at the college. Told in no uncertain terms to quash whatever she finds to preserve Pendelton's reputation, Reese is dismissed, leaving Adams all alone when the killer strikes, who was hiding under his car, giving them an excellent vantage point to slice his achilles tendon in half.

Hobbled, as Adams tries to desperately crawl away, the killer puts his car in neutral, gravity takes over, and the rolling vehicle barrels right over him, impaling the old man onto the one-way, tire-shredding, deterrent spikes. 

Meanwhile, Paul tracks down Natalie at the party, shows her the article, and they conclude Wexler is most likely behind the murders. Thinking they should call the cops, Paul says he already tried but Dean Adams headed them off at the pass before he died, informing the authorities to expect all kinds of prank calls about a mad killer on campus and to ignore them; and so, they didn’t believe him. But the question remains, Why is Wexler targeting Natalie and her friends? She has no idea, and the cumulative guilt causes the girl to break down in tears, resulting in an unsolicited reassuring kiss from Paul, which she reciprocates -- just as Brenda finds them.

Knowing Brenda had a thing for Paul, and realizing she’s made a terrible mistake, Natalie runs after her while Paul promises to find some help. But first, he tries to get Parker to end the party and send everyone home for their own safety because there really is a killer loose on campus. But a drunken Parker calls bullshit on that, and accuses Paul of taking a mercenary advantage of the situation to further his own career goals. In fact, to those ends, says Parker, maybe Paul is the killer? Thus, the party continues but without Paul -- or Sasha, who calls her boyfriend out on his loutish behavior before leaving for her shift at the campus radio station.

Meantime, Reese is out patrolling the campus and is drawn to some strange noises in Wexler’s office. And while the office is empty, we do notice that axe we saw earlier is missing, which no doubt might explain away the massive amount of blood on the floor that Reese slips and falls on. And, well, turns out the cops won’t believe her, either, but promise to send the next available unit to the campus, which will take awhile due to a massive storm currently thrashing the area. (Sort of. More on this in a second, too.)

Things kind of accelerate from there as we cut back to the party, where Parker gets a death threat over the phone. Checking the caller ID shows it’s coming from Damon, and so, Parker decides to play along and asks what urban legend has his name on it -- only to be told he’s guessed wrong and the one currently playing out is the one about the old woman who tried to dry off her dog in the microwave. With that, Parker pushes his way into the deserted kitchen, where the microwave has just finished its cycle as he opens the door and finds the grisly remains of his beloved terrier, Hootie.

Sick to his stomach, Parker retreats to the bathroom, where he is accosted by the killer between heaves and gets knocked out. When he comes to, he is restrained to the toilet as his attacker uses a plumber’s helper to force feed him a load of Pop Rocks and caustic drain cleaner, which fatally bursts his stomach.

The Urban Legends Killer then moves to the radio station, where he first kills Sasha’s engineer and cuts the phone lines, which horks the host off because she was about to explain to a caller on how to properly escape the Chinese torture device better known as penis captivus. (I’ll let you all Google that.) Anyhoo, realizing she’s in danger, Sasha leads the killer on a most righteous chase throughout the building but makes the fatal mistake of circling back to where she started instead of finding the nearest exit.

Turns out Sasha was still broadcasting this whole time, too, which was heard by both Natalie and Reese -- the only two who don’t think this was just another prank. Natalie gets there first, just in time to see the killer axe Sasha to death. And after Natalie flees the building, Reese finds the body. And with no other help coming, drawing inspiration from her cinematic hero, Pam Grier, our rent-a-cop decides to take matters into her own hands -- namely, a bigger gun.

Meantime, Natalie runs into Paul, who is missing his usual casual loner jacket and is soaking wet from the rain. He also fails to answer where he's been since they split up. Fearing Parker may have been on to something, Natalie is about to flee again when Brenda arrives, who also heard Sasha getting murdered over the airwaves. Here, Brenda suggests they all go find a working phone and get the real cops here before someone else gets killed.

Thus and so, they all pile into Paul’s Jeep and head into town, stopping at a gas station along the way. And while Paul heads in to use the phone, an awful smell in the vehicle leads the other two to the discovery of Wexler’s mangled body stuffed in the back hatch. This, of course, convinces both Natalie and Brenda that Paul really was the killer all along.

Saying he’s all yours, Brenda flees back toward campus on foot with Natalie right behind her. But as Paul calls after them, they get separated before reaching the campus proper. Here, things really start to get convoluted as Natalie hitches a ride with the Creepy Janitor, who, you guessed it, also owns an incriminating parka to add even more confusion. But this is nipped in the bud pretty quick when Paul’s Jeep roars on seen, forcing them off the road, where the janitor is either knocked out or killed outright.

Back on foot, a dazed Natalie makes it back to campus, finds a security call box, and raises the alarm with Reese. She then hears Brenda screaming for help, and traces her cries to Stanley Hall, where a light is burning on the uppermost floor. 

And as those cries for help continue, Natalie doesn’t wait for Reese and breaks into the building on her own, where she discovers the remains of all her friends as she tries to find Brenda -- which she finally does, but was apparently too late as her lifeless body is sprawled across a bed.

But! Turns out this was all a ruse to draw Natalie in close enough so Brenda could sucker punch her friend, knocking Natalie unconscious. And when the girl comes to, she finds herself gagged and restrained to that bed, giving Brenda, the real Urban Legends Killer all along, a captive audience as she gets to monologuing about why she targeted Natalie and killed all of their friends -- complete, quite inexplicably, with an audio/visual assist.

And according to this slide-show, it turns out that guy who died during the hazing incident was the love of Brenda’s life, who also claims they were going to get married before Natalie and Michelle killed him. (Though given her current psychosis, who knows if this is true or Brenda is just some stalker now fixated on Natalie.) As for the others? Well, that was just a case of carpet-bombing to throw off any suspicions as to who the real intended victims were. As to why the urban legends angle? Ah, that was vitally necessary, see, so Brenda could frame oddball Wexler, arranging things to make him look like the killer before suiciding out, so Brenda could have her revenge, get away with it all, and then live happily ever after with her new boyfriend, Paul.

With all the explanations out of the way, Brenda then moves to put the finishing touch on her baroque schemes by pulling off one last urban legend slaying -- this time, the tale of “The Stolen Kidney” -- where some poor dupe gets roofied, wakes up in a tub of ice with a surgical scar short one major organ. Here, Brenda apologizes for the lack of ice or anesthetic. Not to worry, though; Natalie is not destined to survive this procedure anyway. But on the bright side, Brenda says, her victim is destined to live forever by becoming an urban legend herself.

However, Brenda also flunked anatomy, so it might take her a while to find Natalie’s kidney as her scalpel starts probing. But before things get too messy, Reese arrives and orders Brenda to move away from her victim at gunpoint. And once Natalie is freed, Reese tells Brenda to assume the position to be frisked. But then we kinda confirm that Reese just isn’t very good at her job as she failed to find Brenda's switchblade during the pat-down, which she uses to slice open Reese’s abdomen. 

And to make matters worse, Brenda beats Natalie to the dropped gun. And while a bullet to the head lacks a certain flare it will just have to do as Natalie pleads with the killer, saying this won’t bring her dead boyfriend back. No, says Brenda. It won’t. But it might win her new boyfriend a Pulitzer. Turns out Paul kinda likes this idea, who applauds as he finally waltzes into the scene. (And how long was he hanging around before making his move?)

He thanks Brenda for her efforts, saying all they need to do now is wrap up a few loose ends and then mop up. His true allegiance is unclear until he asks for the gun, which convinces Brenda she’s gotta shoot them both now. But who to shoot first? Well, she ties to Eeny, meeny, miny it but Reese makes Brenda the mo, having recovered enough to use her back-up piece to shoot the killer -- but not fatally.

This time, Natalie winds up with the gun, who shoots an enraged Brenda multiple times, sending her careening out a window, where she falls several stories to her death. Allegedly.

With the campus phones still out of order due to that off again on again storm, Natalie and Paul once more pile into his Jeep and head back into town to alert the authorities and summon some paramedics for poor Reese. Unfortunately, they forgot they were in a horror movie, meaning they failed to check on Brenda’s body, which explains why she is now in the backseat with an axe. 

But this twist is quickly rectified when she brains Paul with the blunt side of the axe, causing him to lose control of the Jeep as she and Natalie struggle over the weapon.

The vehicle then slams into a bridge, coming to a dead-stop, which sends Brenda hurtling through the front windshield, where she falls into the water far below. And as Natalie and Paul watch as her body floats away and then embrace, cut to another campus, where another student wraps up the story of the Mad Campus Killer.

Saying the body of the villain was never recovered, his gathered friends don’t believe him or his story -- save one, who may or may not be a still surviving Brenda, who says this urban legend actually did happen but he told it all wrong. And as a sinister smile purses her lips, the girl settles in to tell it like it really happened as we fade to black.

As Urban Legend first winds down on the drive into town, Natalie and Paul get strangely philosophical given the circumstances of almost getting killed, like, five minutes ago, discussing how what happened will still most likely become an urban legend of some sort. Sure, the facts will be fudged or misconstrued over time, and the actual players will get confused and shuffled around before eventually getting lost to time. But then Paul asks the inevitable: if their tale really was an urban legend going through its birthing process, what will the big twist for their ending be?

Here, director Blanks gives us not one, but two, twists knotting up the end of Urban Legend after revealing and allegedly dispatching the killer, where Brenda is somehow miraculously still alive after taking multiple bullet hits, crashing through a window, and falling three stories only to wind up still kicking in the back of the Jeep. And then the filmmaker double-downs on that first twist by having Wile E. Brenda not only survive all of that nonsense but also prove immune from getting jettisoned out of a car, breaking through a windshield, head first, and falling into a river only to show up in another campus to resume her devious tale.

For many, that second surprise was one twist too many; but thinking on it, Was that second and final coda really a twist at all? For while one could easily read that as nothing more than sequel baiting, I’m not so sure and perhaps we should take it at face value, meaning what we all just watched was nothing more than the faulty recollections of a tale within a tale because, honestly, that’s the only way Urban Legend could possibly work narratively or make any sense at all.

Yeah, this film is kinda chock full of plot-holes and improbabilities that would only work if it was a representation of an over-embellishing narrator. I mean, otherwise, there is no possible way Brenda could’ve pulled-off all of those murder set-pieces alone -- unless she is a work of fiction, allowing the teller to exaggerate her prowess, the gruesomeness of her victim’s demise (-- a bloated Parker appears to have split in half and is now oozing Scrubbing Bubbles), and how she was able to move these bodies around undetected and clean up her crime scenes with such ease?

Sure, these points of contention are all well-ingrained Slasher Tropes that I usually let slide; but unlike those other films, Urban Legend has presented us with an out and a ready made excuse to pave over all those plot-holes and let the film get away with it all. OK, sure, it’s still a twist -- and one could argue it’s a bit of a cheat, where the film itself is just an urban legend, but at least now the film makes a modicum of sense. Hell, that’s a BIG cheat.

Speaking of cheating, but, man, does Blanks like to use cheap musical stings for his jump scares. But he kinda had to as Horta’s script was still pretty weak and leaking badly as it covers the same ground multiple times, even with the built in excuse of “anything goes” since none of this, technically, was happening as I read it and only an unbridled recollection. The attempts at establishing any suspects is pretty abysmal, too, with the only real clue being everyone on campus seems to own the exact same winter parka -- which was strangely out of season.

Apparently, as scripted, the film was supposed to take place during the winter, which was why the killer wore a heavier coat; but when this was changed due to the timing of the shooting schedule, the decision was made to change a climactic blizzard into a massive thunderstorm; but they stuck with the parka because the producers feared a raincoat or slicker would look too much like the killer from I Know What You Did Last Summer. Even if it was a tad anachronistic, I found the killer’s signature look to be one of the best parts of the movie.

And, wow, does Blanks really like to shoot in the rain, except for when he doesn't as the fetishist storm has no consistency as sometimes it's raining and other times it is not during the climax. And I think the director made a tactical mistake of toning down the kills, which could’ve added a little more punch to these proceedings as the only real gore we do get is of the remnants of the poor dog nuked in the microwave.

Now, one must also point out that during the Slasher Revival of the 1990s, to appeal to a certain crowd that normally didn’t go to see these kinds of horror movies, productions tended to raid the casts of angsty teen melodramas currently showing on the WB, UPN, and Fox to headline their product, which gives everything a slick -- and to my eyes, counter-productive, hipster sheen to this particular glut of body count movies. Also, nearly every single character in these were terrible people just begging to be killed.

Both Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Love Hewitt (Party of Five) turned down the role of Natalie, opening the door for Alicia Witt, whom the producers liked because they felt she was against type. Witt made her big screen debut as the little witch girl, Alia, in David Lynch’s Dune (1984), and would later show up on Twin Peaks. She kinda reminds me a bit of Shelley Duvall and brings a lot of salt to the role, rocks the hell out of a turtleneck, and we’re definitely on her side as things hit the fan. 

Long before he made an ass out of himself as the Joker in Suicide Squad (2016), Jared Leto (My So Called Life) was cast as Paul because he had a “dark quality” that offset his boy next door good looks. Rebecca Gayheart, meantime, was known mostly for being the Noxema Girl before she started showing up on things like Beverly Hills 90210 and Earth 2. She’s pretty wet as the best friend but sells the hell out of her villainous turn during the climax.

Michael Rosenbaum was just starting out but would go on to carve out a niche as Lex Luthor on Smallville and voice-over work as the Flash in the Justice League cartoon series. Joshua Jackson was just coming off The Mighty Ducks trilogy (1992-1993) and was about to take a long dip in Dawson's Creek. Tara Reid was also a relative newcomer and was a last second replacement for Sarah Michelle Gellar, who had to back out due to scheduling conflicts on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To help anchor the film and give it some regular genre appeal, the production landed Freddy Kreuger himself, Robert Englund, as the nutty professor, who had temporarily wrapped-up his ongoing nightmare on Elm Street with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) before returning again in Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Also making an uncredited appearance as the gas jockey was the voice of Chucky, Brad Dourif, from the Child’s Play franchise (1998-2017). 

And we also got Danielle Harris as the ill-fated Tosh, who played Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989). Apparently, the actress had originally auditioned for the lead role of Natalie, but was instead cast as the roommate from hell. And while these three do bring a ton of horror cred, their roles were really nothing more than glorified drive-bys.

And then there’s Loretta Devine as Reese, the campus cop, who brings an endearing likeability to her character even though she is a bit of a screw-up; first being in lock-step with the Dean, and later getting a little too overzealous as she tries to channel her cinematic hero, Coffy (1973). Funnily enough, Neil Moritz’s father Milt had worked in the publicity department for American International Pictures back in the day and was instrumental in promoting Pam Grier and many of their Blaxploitation pictures, giving him an in to license the footage needed for this film.

When it was released, Urban Legend was ravaged by the critics but made a shit-ton of money -- around $70-million on a $14-million budget. Thus, a sequel was in order, resulting in Urban Legends 2: Final Cut (2000), which moves the action to a film school with the only returning characters being Reese and (maybe) Brenda in a brief, post-credit cameo. This was then followed by a direct to video third installment, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005), which I haven’t had the pleasure of encountering yet.

As for the original Urban Legend from which those sequels sprung? Well, as I’ve stated in earlier reviews, I am a huge Slasher Movie fan who prefers the Whodunits over the Howtheydunits. I remember catching this one on the big screen when it first came out -- one of the last films seen at the old Imperial 3 before I moved to a different town and it was shuttered. Overall it’s an enjoyable enough cinematic excursion if a bit lazy, story wise. Witt is a great Final Girl, and we’re still sympathizing with the cannon fodder. And I’m still up in the air a bit on how to read that ending as either brilliant, sequel bait, or the biggest cheat in Slasher Movie history until, what, Haute Tension (2003) came along? 

Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 21 films down with just FIVE more yet to go. Up next, It's Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs in the greatest rodeo round-up of ever!!!

Urban Legend (1998) Phoenix Pictures :: Canal+ Droits Audiovisuels :: Original Film :: TriStar Pictures / EP: Mike Medavoy, Brad Luff / P: Gina Matthews, Michael McDonnell, Neal H. Moritz / AP: Brian Leslie Parker / D: Jamie Blanks / W: Silvio Horta / C: James Chressanthis / E: Jay Cassidy / M: Christopher Young / S: Alicia Witt,Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid, John Neville, Julian Richings, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Robert Englund, Danielle Harris, Brad Dourif


Tim said...

I love this one as it conjures up warm and fuzzy memories of my final fall semester of college, when I had my first car, had been dumped by my housemate, went on a ton of dates that went no where, and spent a lot of time in theaters with my friends or shuttling down to my hometown to see movies like this with my siblings! As for Urban Legend 3, it’s more of a crummy 2000s remake of Prom Night 2 than an actual entry in this series, but I would love to read one of your production histories of it.

W.B. Kelso said...

Turns out I had seen Urban Legends 3 as I found it streaming a few nights ago, realized I'd seen it, remembering, oh, yeah, this is the one where the douchebag blows his dick off by peeing on an electric fence. Might get around to reviewing it someday but would have to do Urban Legend 2 first. There are rules to this nonsense after all.

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