Urban Legend: 20 Years Later

Is it time for a return to the teen slasher? For now, we'll just look back on an underrated favorite.

Urban Legend

In the closing remarks of Roger Ebert’s 1988 review of Urban Legend, he makes a statement: “Urban Legend is not art.”

Clearly, that’s arguable.

But furthermore, he says, “It serves the same purpose, which is to speed the meeting of like minds.” Now he was referring to teenagers, trying to draw a comparison between jump scares and a date trying to cop a feel, which is a more than a little gross. But he does make a good point about the genre of horror movies. They build communities and bring people together.

Jamie Blanks‘ Urban Legend, about a college campus killer obsessed with urban folklore, is 20 years old this week. But in the lightning flash that was ’90s teen slashers, it can get lost. Wes Craven’s Scream reignited the genre in 1996, creating a template for a slew of slashers to follow. A year later, I Know What You Did Last Summer, based on a Lois Duncan novel and given the Scream treatment by its own screenwriter Kevin Williamson, established a separate but formidable teen slasher franchise. But by 1998, the trend was already beginning to wind down, resulting in Urban Legend being categorized in the myriad of Scream clones that would define the over saturation of the era.

But “UL,” as it’s fondly referred to by Rebecca Gayheart’s Brenda in the film, doesn’t feel as much of a Scream knock-off as it was assuredly thought of at the time. Rather, it feels cut from the same cloth of the mean-spirited slashers of the early ’80s, like Night School and The House on Sorority Row. Because our last great era of slashers were the glossy ’90s Hollywood productions, it’s easy to forget about its grimier early filmography.

Films like Slaughter High and Terror Train both have brutal inciting incidents where the budding teenage sociopaths don’t just push a prank a step too far, they go so over the line it begins to feel merciless. The real inciting incident of Urban Legend, of why Brenda has an, ahem, axe to grind with Natalie (Alicia Witt), is just as cold-blooded. It not only colors our Final Girl in a morally ambiguous light but makes you empathize with our hooded slasher.

The kills themselves may be essentially bloodless, but that just presses the creatives to take a banal idea one step over the limit. From Joshua Jackson’s Damon being strung 30 feet up a tree by his neck to Tara Reid’s Sasha being axed again and again, to Parker (Michael Rosenbaum) getting Drano and Pop Rocks down his throat, each kill is elaborate and vicious. When Danielle Harris’ moody goth roomie Tosh is strangled to death next to a napping Natalie, you can’t help but marvel at how truly dark that idea is, especially with the bloodstained handwriting scrawled on the wall: “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?UL doesn’t pull its cruel punches.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. In some ways, the film could arguably be more meta than even Scream. This is helped in no small part by a stable of horror cameos, but just look at its ability to poke fun at itself! Be it Jackson’s beat up car blasting the first few notes of the Dawson’s Creek theme song or Loretta Devine’s Reese practicing her best Pam Grier while watching Foxy Brown, these intentional nods give us permission to laugh both with and at the film. “Goth 4 Goth,” the chat room that Harris’ character is constantly in is so silly and on-the-nose that it can’t be anything but parody. Tonally it makes sense. Urban Legend is the furthest from self-serious.

And while the film has a whole lotta Leto, what I found most surprising on revisit is how female-focused Urban Legend is. I think it would be a slight stretch to declare the Silvio Horta-scripted film “feminist,” as ultimately much of the forward momentum is either for or because of a man, but the gender politics of this slasher doesn’t feel as homogenous as its ’80s and ’90s predecessors. Namely, the fact that the three core archetypes of the subgenre, the final girl, the killer, and the lone cop (yes, security guard, but the role is the same), are all women.

Witt is an imposing Final Girl. Not only does she figure out the killers M.O. immediately, she hangs out in the library and is unafraid of giving the patriarchy two literal black eyes, all the while remaining untrustworthy of everyone who could be the killer. This may not make her the best friend in a slasher movie, but it does make her one hell of a headstrong survivor. Devine may be intended to be the comic relief, but I think that’s solely in audience expectation alone. The intent may be that she is a bumbling security guard on campus, but she imbues Reese with instinctual fire, and she undeniably saves the day.

Brenda is delightfully disgruntled, especially on the second revisit to the film. Her genuine joyous surprised reactions, from when she finds out Natalie and Damon may have made out to her deadass delivery after being told of Natalie’s impropriety is as hilarious as it is demented and perfectly summarizes the camp queen icon Gayheart is in this film.

But back to that idea that Ebert proposed, where horror films bring together like minds. If you have any doubt about that statement, I beg you to catch a late night screening of Evil Dead II or Madman and try to not feel the sense of community — the connection. That sense is born from being young teenagers escaping a life of curfew and “parental units” to toil away 90 minutes in a darkened theater with other kids ready to scream and laugh.

While our modern character-driven horror like Hereditary and The Babadook have brought an urgency back to the genre, it does it in spite of its OG audience. Not only is there a condescension in the way current critics (both professional and arm-chair alike) discuss our modern genre masterpieces, most easily noted by its arrogant “elevated” buzzword, but the films aren’t made for the shared experience. These emotionally driven and intricately layered character studies require an extra attention to detail, an analysis. You become more in awe of the individually crafted pieces, rather than experiencing the whole. You don’t go to Hereditary to have a good time.

Which is arguably where the audience discordance is coming from. We’ve attached the audience experience of horror to the films for so long that when a movie comes out that defies populist expectation, it’s hard to shake the desire to laugh at your own fears while trying to scare your buddies in the row in front of you.

The horror market isn’t necessarily being made to fit teens currently, which is a shame because if Urban Legend and Scream taught us anything it is that strong, intelligent, and witty films can also be teen scream slasher movies. The two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. Don’t believe me? Just look at Tragedy Girls, The Babysitter, and Happy Death Day. And with John Hughes inspired high school rom-com’s making a comeback like Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, then it’s proof to the point that we’re ready for a return of smart teen-oriented horror.

That also requires the critics to confront their own biases, though. Horror isn’t a market that is easily derided as trash cinema anymore, but the condescension for the genre has yet to waver. For teen screams to come back and horror not to lose its “elevation,” critics’ natural judgments about horror have to have evolved. And with a return to teen screams, which could prove to be vital in a time of innumerable school shootings, this could be a way for a younger moviegoing audience to process societal trauma in ways that are directed towards them. As filmmakers begin to explore modern themes in high school through a genre lens we’ll hopefully begin to see an emergence of the fun slasher alongside heavier films like Assassination Nation.

If Urban Legend had come out a decade before it did, it very well could have been lost forever. Making the jump from VHS to DVD was never a given in the early days of new media, and for a late-stage slasher flick, it possibly would have been lost in the first wave of slasher oversaturation just like it is now bundled into the Scream carbon copies of second wave slashers.

But will the slashers ever be king again, especially in an era that exemplifies character-driven supernatural films? Maybe, yet only if they have half of the ingenuity and mean-spirited bite as Jamie Blank’s Urban Legend.

Actor. Writer. Available to host your next public access show. Bylines at: Ghastly Grinning, Rue Morgue, Diabolique Magazine.