After the unexpected success of Scream during the Christmas holidays of 1996, when the movie out grossed the likes of Mars Attacks!, Evita and The People vs. Larry Flynt with an overall taking of $103m, it seemed inevitable that Hollywood producers and studios would once again capitalise on the success of a slasher and produce their own variations. Much like with the success of Friday the 13th and the imitators which followed, once the box office takings were counted and Scream was declared a major achievement, writers were immediately brought in to pitch their own slasher treatments for eager investors. The first to surface was Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, a Columbia-produced thriller scripted by Scream‘s Kevin Williamson which would itself earn a respectable $72.5. its producer, Neal Moritz, had no interest in continuing in the slasher genre, despite his recent success, but he soon changed his mind when he was pitched another project.
Silvio Horta was a Cuban American who had been raised in Miami and had recently graduated from NYU Film School. Having relocated to Los Angeles to sell his first screenplay, Even Exchange, he attracted the attention of producer Gina Matthews. After suggesting a story in which various students at a prestigious college are murdered using methods based on urban legends, Horta was introduced Moritz, who immediately sensed its potential. Approaching Brad Luff of Original Film, Moritz took the premise to the chairman of Phoenix Pictures with the intention of making it his next feature. Horta was commissioned to develop the screenplay and the project was greenlit. Meanwhile, Wes Craven had followed up his previous blockbuster with Scream 2, which would make an astonishing $33m on its opening weekend, convincing Phoenix to rush Urban Legend into production. Whilst searching for a director for I Know What You Did Last Summer, Moritz had been approached by a young Australian filmmaker, Jamie Blanks, who had been eager to direct but he had already hired Gillespie. Blanks had attended Melbourne’s Swinburne Film School before making his directorial debut with the eleven minute short Silent Number in 1993.
The story opens with Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a young college student, driving through a remote country lane when she realises that she is running low on gas. Pulling into a service station, the creepy attendant (Brad Dourif) manages to convince her to leave her car after claiming that her bank is on the phone due to issues with her credit card. But when she enters the building she discovers that there is no one on the phone and quickly makes her way back to the car, macing the attendant and driving off at high speed. But as she escapes he shouts that there is someone in the back of her car. Further down the road, she turns up her radio and tries to compose herself, but a hooded figure sits up on her back seat and suddenly swings an axe around straight into her head. Meanwhile, back on campus, fellow student Parker Riley (Michael Rosenbaum) tells a group of friends about a mysterious event that happened years earlier at Stanley Hall, a closed wing of the college, where a teacher had turned crazy and had massacred all the students in the building. Not wanting a scandal on their hands, the school board had covered up the mess and kept the story from becoming public knowledge. But whilst Parker’s friends listen intensely, college journalist Paul Gardner (Jared Leto) dismisses the tale as an urban legend.
The following day the news about Michelle’s accident spreads around campus. Coincidentally, a lecture taught by the mysterious college professor William Wexler (Robert Englund) is focusing on such urban legends, including eating popping candy and drinking Pepsi, causing the stomach to explode. Resident joker Damon Brooks (Joshua Jackson) demonstrates in front of the class, before starting to foam the mouth. Predictably, this is all a prank and Damon stands up and grins at the class. Two students, Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt) and Brenda Bates (Rebecca Gayheart), read an article on Michelle’s tragedy in the school paper, before the Dean (John Neville) chastises its author, Paul, for printing such nonsense. That evening whilst parked in the woods, Natalie confesses to Damon that she had once been friends with the victim but they had not spoken in years and in return Damon tries to make her sympathetic by telling a sad story about an ex-girlfriend, which is eventually revealed to be yet another joke. But soon afterwards, Damon heads into the trees to urinate and Natalie panics when the killer appears in front of her. Desperate to drive away, she does not realise that a rope attached to the car is also tied around Damon’s neck, causing him to hang as the car drives away. But when she is unable to leave, him lifeless body suddenly lands on the windscreen, causing Natalie to run hysterically into the woods.
Their friends refuse to believe Natalie when she tells them what had happened, writing it off as another of Damon’s pranks. Her roommate, the maniac depressive goth Tosh (Danielle Harris), is the next to fall victim, showing that the killer has some kind of personal grudge against Natalie. Others to be subjected to urban legends include college DJ Sasha Thomas (Tara Reid) and even the Dean, before the killer is eventually revealed to be Brenda. It seems that the incident which soured Natalie and Michelle’s friendship, when the latter had played ‘chicken’ one night and had caused the fatal crash of Brenda’s boyfriend. Let off with just a caution, the girls had moved on with their lives but Brenda had sought revenge, moving into Natalie’s life and killing off those around her, whilst reserving the ‘stolen kidney’ urban legend for her. But Natalie is saved by the usually inept security guard Reese Wilson (Loretta Devine), before Brenda manages to escape, presumed dead. Some time later, the story is told to another group of friends, among those students listening to the tale is the killer, once again incognito.
Urban Legend would boast an impressive cast, ranging from hot newcomers to genre veterans. For the role of Natalie, the filmmakers chose Alicia Witt, a former collaborator of David Lynch, whilst the part of Paul went to Jared Leto, the co-star of hit teen drama My So-Called Life (in which he would appear alongside Claire Danes). Damon would be played by Joshua Jackson, former child star of Disney‘s Mighty Ducks franchise and soon destined to receive acclaim for his regular role in Dawsons Creek. His Scream 2 co-star, Rebecca Gayheart, would portray Brenda, whilst Smallville‘s Michael Rosenbaum would provide support as Parker. One of the principal red herrings of the story, Professor Wexley, would see Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, make a guest appearance, whilst the gas station during the opening sequence would be played by Brad ‘Chucky’ Dourif (whose speech impediment would be a reference to his role in One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
Blanks, making his feature debut at the age of twenty six, displays a confident style and approaches the material with a knowing wink, aided by cinematographer James Chressanthis. Scream‘s professional and crisp look had convinced other filmmakers to forgo the drive-in look that had been inherent in the genre since the early eighties and so Urban Legend, much like I Know What You Did Last Summer, was far more polished. Its score, performed by genre composer Christopher Young, serves its purpose without drawing too much attention to itself, though it lacks the distinctive style of his work on Hellraiser. The special effects are minimal, with Blanks instead employing a more suggestive approach, though fans of more gruesome and elaborate set pieces (which had been on offer in Scream) may be disappointed.
Shot on a budget of $14m on location at Canada’s Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Urban Legend was a welcome addition to the slasher genre before it once again became saturated with mediocre offerings (including Blanks’ sophomore effort Valentine). Whilst offering very little to the formula that had not been utilised before, it was a tense and stylish tale which succeeded in mixing a unique premise a host of recognisable faces (including Danielle Harris of Halloween 4 and 5 fame). It may not live up to the promise of Scream but it was certainly more impressive than the abysmal Scream 3, and between Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer once again, for a brief time, the slasher once again ruled at the box office. An above average offering.