Friday, April 17, 2009

Urban Legend (USA, 1998)

(Trailer.) A film that should have been a lot better than it is. Of the spat of teen horror films that hit the screen around the end of the 1990s, Urban Legend is one of the least ironic, most traditional and least interesting. In regards to the teenage bodycount genre, Urban Legend works neither as homage nor as a particularly inspired update but is much more a by-the-book imitation. Put all the characters in clothes from the early 80s, and you wouldn't be able to tell much of a difference. And, like so many of the early bodycount splatter films, the only thing that really keeps you interested is the curiosity of who is next to die and how. Most would-be victims are given less identifiable personality than any of the numerous walk-on characters of the Friday the 13th or Halloween flicks, and the little personality they are given tends to be so obnoxious in nature that you don't care when they die anyway.
Not that that usually matters if you're into this type of thing, but what is bothersome is that the film could have been a lot better had a little more care gone into the film. The concept of a killer going around acting out urban legends is not that bad an idea, the cannon of legendary horrors being plentiful, often frightful and for the most part untouched in film (at the that time, in any event). Thus, for a bodycount film, the script is functionally good enough in that even as see-through as it is, it offers a passable framework for the action. (True, the killer is much too easy to figure out, but then, this ain't no mystery flick.) Scriptwriter Silvio Blank does at least dispose of the few authority elements quickly enough by making them all major Doubting Thomases and, in turn, easy fodder; but then, adults never have belonged in this type of movie anyway, so why bother keeping any of them around?
On the other hand, the simplified one-note characterization of all would-be "teenage" victims does get annoying after awhile – are there no likable teens out there to killed? No teens about whom we might worry for or sympathize with? In Urban Legend they are all either egoists, loudmouthed or simply obnoxious, other than for the first victim, who dies before she can display any traits at all.
But again, one doesn't necessarily watch these types of film for the characterization. (Characterization and logic are simply things that sometimes, once a blue moon in the most unexpected place, suddenly pop up and help transform a dead-teenager film into something surprising – namely: an exception.) Films like this get watched either for the vicarious thrills, scares or the effects. In this regard, Urban Legend ain't no masterpiece either. The gore level is low and the tension middling.
The latter is due to the movie's most damaging flaw: The lacklustre direction and cinematography. Director Jamie Blank, in his directorial debut, shows all the natural flare of blind baseball player with ten thumbs. He has no idea how to build-up or even present mood or tension, let alone sustain it, and seemingly has even less of a concept about what a camera is capable of doing. The lifeless, uninteresting if not simply banal direction does much to kill the film, and all the false scares thrown in every ten minutes to wake up the viewer are a cheap, unsatisfying substitute. (The man obviously is aiming for a career in television.) About the only half-way suspenseful kill is the long chase scene inspired by the Ohio Player's death in the recording studio legend of the ax-murdered victim's scream – which, as anyone who grew up in the seventies can tell you, isn't a legend but is true. (Uh, and I have a bridge to sell you, too.)
Amongst the other legends mined and modified are the killer in the back seat, the switchblade-wielding ankle slicer hidden under the car, the dog in the microwave, the scratching feet of the boyfriend hung over the car, the car that stinks of rotten flesh (though the victim is actually much too fresh to actually stink) and the "aren't you glad you didn't turn on the lights" killer. The Drano murder is harder to fit as a legend, primarily because – unlike the Ohio Players story – it can be traced factually from a scene of a pimp killing a hooker in the back seat of a cab in Magnum Force (1973) to a real murder attempt inspired by the film, as narrated in the true crime book Victim by Gary Kinder. (Perhaps the legend there is that death comes quickly with Drano, for in truth Drano is both extremely painful and not necessarily fatal when swallowed.)
Want a teenage body count film from the turn of the century that scares and even is surprisingly different from the rest of the masses? Then don't get this turkey, go get Final Destination (2000/trailer) instead. (Or, if you prefer you gore with humor, try Final Destination II (2003/trailer)... but skip the uninteresting Final Destination III (2006/trailer).

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