F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror URBAN LEGEND

F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror URBAN LEGEND

Horrorific content by Jessica Gomez on September 11th, 2020 | Culture | Slasher, Serial Killer, Teen, Urban Legend

A Monthly Column Dissecting Teen Horror Favorites

The nineties often get overlooked, earning a reputation for a decade of bad horror movies, but it was a time when teen horror truly reigned. After Scream’s massive success appealing to the masses utilizing recognizable young actors with a wink and a nod to the genre, the stage was set for Jamie Blanks’s 1998 slasher Urban Legend.

A group of college students at the fictional Pendleton University prepare for a frat party that is hosted each year to commemorate a supposed massacre of students years prior - an urban legend that allows for plenty of red herrings. The friends are picked off one by one by a serial killer whom Natalie, the film’s protagonist, discovers is using urban legends as murder inspiration. In an homage to the 1983 anthology Nightmares, the ‘killer in the backseat’ legend is the first kill scene, and in each scene thereafter, different terrifying legends play out on screen, including scratching on the car roof, ankle slashers, and the ultra gruesome drying off a dog in a microwave - an unexpected scene for a commercial film.

An urban legend, Robert Englund tells his students as prime suspect Professor Wexler, is temporary folklore - a cautionary tale to young women to mind your children, or harm will come your way. "That happened to a girl in my hometown" is a phrase we’ve all heard before, and late writer Silvio Horta was smart to exploit that; part of the fun and allure is being “in on” the lore, having been told the stories by other kids (or, for me, my mom) growing up, and thinking there was a chance that it could have been based on a real story. (Killer Legends would later reveal that some of these legends, though manipulated, do actually have a true story origin.)

For all its silly, corny lines, Urban Legend was - dare I say it - a feminist movie. All of the male characters are self-involved with a severe lack of empathy and/or devoid of emotional response. All of the women are intelligent, empathetic, and competent; when they fail to escape the killer, it’s not for lack of trying or that they’ve made a mistake. There are no bimbos to be found - and just when you think a man is going to step in to save the day, you’re wrong. And, of course, for anyone who has seen the film, the role of the killer went to a female who was working out some extreme PTSD. It wasn’t the first horror film where the killer is a woman, but it was an unexpected twist that made the reveal all the more compelling.

The film opened to mixed reviews but huge commercial success, due in part to a combination of recognizable and up-and-coming movie stars. Jared Leto was fresh off his sex symbol status in My So Called Life, and earned top billing as student journalist Paul, though he wasn’t the main character. Rebecca Gayheart had earned her stripes with a recurring role in Beverly Hills, 90210 and a small part in Scream 2. Joshua Jackson, who can always be depended on to provide lovable, dumb comic relief, was featured in Dawson’s Creek the same year. A pre- American Pie Tara Reid shines as a sex-positive radio host with a memorable death scene heard on the airwaves. Loretta Devine had, and continues to have, an illustrious television and film career. Smaller roles, meant as nods to horror fans, went to Danielle Harris of Halloween 4 and Halloween 5, and feared gas station attendant Brad Dourif, who, among a slew of horror films including voicing Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise, starred in the urban legend storyteller horror Grim Prairie Tales. Robert Englund had more than a cameo, and it was a pleasure to watch him in a notable role in a horror movie other than as Freddy Krueger. Most confusing of the casting, though, goes to Alicia Witt as Natalie, the main character whom the murderer is targeting because of her previous involvement in a deadly urban legend. I can only imagine she was cast due in part to being a young favorite of David Lynch; her performance was forced, and though she had the right screams for the job, she was unmemorable - and at times, unlikeable. Gayheart truly stole the show with her complete committal to the deranged (and aptly named) Brenda Bates - you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has seen the movie and doesn’t immediately identify her as the crazed woman with the hair to accompany it. It’s one of the only films I’ve ever seen where I’ve been rooting for the killer.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Scream had a lot to do with Urban Legend’s box office fortune; UL rode its coattails and its predecessor’s success most likely allowed for more graphic slasher scenes. Though Scream is the superior film in the same meta teen horror genre, UL can stand on its own. The legend aspect set it apart, keeping its cutting-edge storyline fresh in the shadow of a giant.

The rewatchability factor for Urban Legend is high - while the undercurrent carries timely themes such as a University cover-up and the unfair treatment of people with mental health issues, or even just those who are deemed “different”, it never takes itself too seriously. The kill scenes are somehow kept appealing for the fact that you might know the story origin. For every death, there’s ridiculous comic relief. It’s the kind of film that a horror fan can throw on year after year, knowing you’re going to have a good time watching even though it’s not going to scare you.

Two sequels resulted - Urban Legends: Final Cut, a commercially successful but critically panned film starring Devine with a cameo from Gayheart, followed years later by straight-to-video film Urban Legends: Bloody Mary from Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert, which moved in a completely different direction from the original.

As with many other 90s horror films, a reboot/sequel is in the works - with Rebecca Gayheart and Loretta Devine returning to reprise their roles. Maybe this time, we’ll hear how the story really goes.

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