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Urban Legend

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Urban Legend

Starring: Rebecca Gayheart, Alicia Witt
Director: Jamie Blanks
Rated: R
RunTime: 99 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genre: Horror

*Also starring: Loretta Devine, Joshua Jackson, Danielle Harris, Robert Englund, John Neville, Julian Richings, Brad Dourif

Review by Dustin Putman
3½ stars out of 4

Back in the early 1980's, there was a slasher movie craze, and it eventually burned out because the films simply weren't any good, reaching for the lowest-common-denominator in filmmaking. But then 1996's "Scream," a genre-shattering horror flick, suddenly revived the genre, and since then we have been bombarded with new horror movies, and the strange thing is, ever since then, they could be divided easily into two categories: the great ("Scream," "Scream 2," "I Know What You Did Last Summer") and the awful ("An American Werewolf in Paris," "Wishmaster," "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer"). Usually you can tell before you see one of these little fright items whether they are going to be worthwhile or not. And luckily, the new slasher film, "Urban Legend," directed by newcomer Jamie Blanks, fits in the former category: the great.

"Urban Legend" stars Alicia Witt (TV's "Cybill") as Natalie, a student of the fictional northeastern college Pendleton University, who becomes convinced after several dead bodies show up that a psychopathic killer is on the loose, murdering people in ways that are based on urban legends (i.e. an axe-wielding killer hiding in the backseat of your car, a babysitter receiving threatening phone calls that are coming from inside the house, etc.). Complicating the story even more is the myth that at the college 25 years ago, a muder spree took place, and the sole survivor was Mr. Wexler (Robert Englund), who, surprise!, is currently teaching the American Folklore class at Pendleton U.

As in the "Scream" movies, "Urban Legend" has a lot of fun toying with its audience on who the killer is: could it be Mr. Wexler; Paul (Jared Leto), a journalism major and potential boyfriend of Natalie; the school's janitor; or any number of the other students and staff. Regardless of this minor similarity to "Scream," "Urban Legend" is an original because of the extremely clever, ingenious storyline. Practically no popular legend is left unturned, and all of them are used to spooky effect.

There are many things that separate this from those 80's stalk-and-slash movies: the characters aren't all one-dimensional airheads, and the performances are from mostly talented up-and-coming actors; the writing is sharp and often funny, with many in-jokes and tributes to other movies, most noticably "Halloween"; the killer's identity is, for most of the running time, unpredictable; and most importantly, it is actually scary, with many effective, suspenseful set-pieces. Two particular moments that are especially nerve-wracking is the opening scene, set at a gas station, and the other is set at a radio station. The picture runs at a brisk pace, and is consistently entertaining. The technical credits are superb, particularly the moody cinematography which casts the college as an ominous character of its own, and the down-beat music score by Chrstopher Young. Another plus is that there are very few songs in the movie, compared to other recent "hip" films aimed at young adults, and like some of the great genre works, like "Halloween" and "The Exorcist," it relies more on an instrumental scores.

If there is a negative thing about the resurgence of the horror genre, it is usually the climax, which reveals the killer's identity and then becomes an example of overacting, and loses its frightening grip. Not here. In "Urban Legend," the villain, whom will remain nameless, obviously has a lot of fun, and it becomes both menacing and strangely humorous. Oh, and one last thing that is worth mentioning: Loretta Devine, who plays the school's black security guard who is obsessed with Pam Grier and blaxploitation movies, is a standout, stealing every scene she's in. The same thing goes for Tara Reid (last seen in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski), as Sasha, Natalie's friend, and DJ at the college's radio station. "Urban Legend" is one of the very best of the recent slasher offerings, because it mixes its laughs and chills with more smoothness and grace than usual, and it proves that just because it's a horror movie that includes people being murdered doesn't mean it still can't be intelligent and impressive filmmaking.

The DVD edition of "Urban Legend" comes to you in a wonderful package filled to the brim with interesting and insightful special features. The film is certainly the best horror film to be released since "Scream," but the extra supplement material buoys it over to being an absolute must-buy on DVD.

First, the DVD transfer and sound is top-notch, like all of Sony's releases, and includes clear, precise colors, with an appropriate emphasis on shades of blue. Aside from maybe one or two instances, there are no noticable hints of bleeding or grain, and the sound perfectly compliments the the picture quality, with an especially powerful transfer of the memorable music score. The orchestral accompaniments were actually noticed more on DVD than when I saw this film in theaters last September. Like usual, I ignored the Full Screen version of the film and did not even take a look at it since any well-knowledged film buff will know that Widescreen is incomparably superior, capturing the theatrical aspect ratio that the movie was meant to be seen in.

As for the Special Features, Sony deserves a round of applause for going out of their way to bring us many enjoyable bonus'. The "Making-Of" featurette, which runs about ten to fifteen minutes, was fascinating because Director Jamie Blanks narrated the footage, which shows us filming of some of the major sequences, including the opening scene at the gas station; the parking garage death scene with John Neville; and the set-piece in the forest with Alicia Witt and Joshua Jackson (as Natalie's wise-cracking friend, Damon). Also among the featurette is an intriguing deleted sex scene between Michael Rosenbaum and Tara Reid in which they are attempting to mimic the positions of the Kama Sutra. Although fun to watch, the scene was wisely cut since it was rather pointless to the story and concluded with an odd occurrence happening that didn't really make much sense in the context of what follows. The Filmmaker's Commentary was done in my favorite commentary format, in which Director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta, and actor Michael Rosenbaum discuss the making of each scene as the film moves along, adding surprising and often funny anecdotes about the making of the picture, as well as stories of the cast and how they actually managed to get the film made in the first place. A particularly amusing on-going discussion that they bring up throughout is how they found the late Gene Siskel's negative review rubbish, since he claimed the film was far too bloody and gruesome. The filmmakers repeatedly point out, however, that they purposefully tried to stray away from excess blood and gore in the film, making it appear with tight edits that the viewer has seen more than they actually have. Other intriguing anecdotes during the commentary were that several lines were improvised; Loretta Devine's part grew more and more as they discovered how very good she was in it; and that the self-referential scene in which Jackson turns on the radio to hear Paula Cole's "I Don't Want To Wait" (the theme song to TV's "Dawson's Creek," which Jackson stars in) was actually thought of on the spot and was filmed during the last take. Finally, other Special Features include actor biographies and filmographies, which come in handy if you are interested in learning about each star and what else they have previously been in, and the film's atmospheric theatrical trailer.

With such a splendid compilation of Special Features on a film such as "Urban Legend," which was one of the more entertaining films of 1998 (and on my runner's-up list of the year's best), this DVD is one of the better presentations that I have come across since buying my DVD player in September of 1998, and judging from the fine commentary, Director Blanks is a talented new filmmaker whom I expect a bright future from.

Copyright 2000 Dustin Putman

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