|Urban Legend (1998)
|Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid and Robert Englund
“Don’t you want to be an urban legend Nat? All your friends are now” – Killer
|Donna Powers, Wayne Powers, Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts. Based on the novel by Tom Savage
|David Boreanaz, Denise Richards, Marley Shelton, Jessica Capshaw, Jessica Cauffiel, Katherine Heigl, Daniel Cosgrove, Johnny Whitworth and Fulvio Cecere
“Does somebody wanna be my Valentine?” – Paige
Ever since “Scream” (1996) re-charged the horror industry that was, at the time, slowly migrating towards Direct to Video the genre has stayed relevant among A-listers and, obviously, below that as well. A number of exciting talent were able to take advantage of this boost early on; among them Australian born director Jamie Blanks, an obvious horror enthusiast who made two noteworthy entries in the “New-age” slasher category.
Urband Legend (1998)
The better, and more successful, film is arguably “Urban Legend”. Taking it’s cues from the recently penned screenplays by Kevin Williamson (“Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” – 1997) in regards to characterizations and overall setting; “Urban Legend” seems like an ideal crossover between the two horror hits both in execution and style.
Natalie (Witt) is a student at Pendleton University in New England and she, along with her friends, is attending the Folklore class taught by Professor Wexler (Englund). The course covers, among other things, the history of urban legends. Natalie’s friends and others begin to die or disappear according to the lurid urban legend stories and Natalie is sure that she’s in danger. Campus reporter Paul (Leto) is on the story and thinks that maybe the goings-on might be connected to an upcoming macabre anniversary, The Stanley Hall massacre, in the university’s past.
This is a knockout premise. The story has much potential and director Jamie Blanks really milks it for all it’s worth with suspenseful set-pieces, a very well sustained creepy mood and a terrific visual style. He obviously knows his stuff and delivers just the right amount of humor to go with some rather horrifying moments while creating some suitably unsettling imagery as well. The film is perfectly paced and performances by the actors are pretty much first rate. As a director Jamie Blanks delivers a near perfect slasher film for the millennium crowd.
Script wise is where things get a little trickier. The idea is a perfect set-up for a slasher film but the script by Silvio Horta, in the end, manages to be both incredibly ingenious while also being utterly contrived and far fetched. The core idea of using urban legends as a springboard for not only the killer’s modus operandi but also his motivations is really good and Blank’s set-up for those scenes are textbook examples of how to stage scary scenes. For example; the opening act is magnificently eerie (and double kudos for the inclusion of a Brad Dourif cameo) and Danielle Harris’s (as Nathlie’s roommate Tosh) death scene is expertly pulled off. But both those scenes have inherent implausibility factors that are really difficult to overlook no matter how forgiving you are of a certain lack of logic.
This is a recurring thing throughout “Urban Legend” but it doesn’t seem to matter too much as everything in the film is done so well. The staging for these unlikely happenings is excellent and pulled of so well it completely works. No matter if you’re scratching your head a moment later and thinking “Well, this really shouldn’t have…” – this is well done, atmospheric and gruesomely pleasurable. The casting here is another thing in the film’s favour. Leto is very good as the reporter, Witt is believable as the leading heroine, Gayheart and Reid are really likeable and Devine is a pleasure to watch as the head of campus security. Devine’s character could so easily have evolved into detrimental camp but it’s a credit to the actress how she nails the part. Then there’s also a bit part for Robert Englund that is well appreciated by genre fans.
For me; “Urban Legend” improves with each viewing. It’s outlandish premise is both brilliant and head scratching in execution but in the hands of Blanks’ assured realization of the material the film is one heck of an entertaining watch over and over again.
The past: Jeremy Melton is a nerdy high school geek who goes around asking a few girls at a Valentine Party to dance with him. They all laugh at him and say no but one girl, a bit heavy but still cute, reacts well and goes smooching with him behind the scenes. They’re found out by some local bullies and the girl shouts that Jeremy assaulted her. The bullies take charge and administer one hell of a humiliating bash for Jeremy as a result; the kind that leaves a kid scarred for life.
The present: The girls at the Valentine dance are all grown up. Shelley (Heigl) is a med student who gets slashed to death one night at the mortuary where she’s working. News of her demise reach her friends; Paige (Richards), Kate (Melton), Dorothy (Capshaw) and Lily (Cauffiel). Kate is doing well professionally but her relationship with borderline alcoholic Adam (Boreanaz) is shaky. Paige is the slutty one in the bunch but she seems to have everything in control. Lily is the ditzy one in the crowd but doing well professionally and is starting a possible relationship with artist Max (Whitworth). Finally there’s Dorothy, the rich but continually miserable one in the bunch, who is hoping to start something with fortune hunter Campbell (Cosgrove) who has nothing but greedy intentions. Dorothy used to be fat but now looks a stunner. She’s also the one who did Jeremy over so badly all those years ago.
After gathering for Shelley’s funeral the girls all get very menacing (and quite elaborate) Valentine cards and one by one they, and the people around them, meet untimely demises.
When “Valentine” came and went fairly unceremoniously in 2001 the sentence “generic slasher film” was often used in reviews to describe it. In my mind the word “generic”, in those terms, is used to mean that the film has little to no identity of it’s own. In a way that’s true for “Valentine”. The opening makes one think of “Carrie” (1976), the nerdy kid who got humiliated and goes for revenge is exactly like “Terror Train” (1980), the Valentine motif reminds one of “My Bloody Valentine” (1981) and the Cupid mask the killer dons sparks numerous comparisons. But I’m going to use my same praise for the film as I already used for “Urban Legend” and say that director Blanks milks every ounce of worth in the, admittedly, tired and predictable storyline.
Said predictable storyline was penned by not one, not two, not three but four screenwriters and that’s usually not a good thing. And, thanks to IMDB trivia, the story can not be blamed on the book the film is based since it only lifted the title. The story is that thin and it has nothing unexpected up it’s sleave to throw at the audience. That, ultimately, turns into a good thing as it’s a fairly focused and one-note film that gives it’s audience enough of the cheap thrills they desire. But, in my opinion, here’s where the multiple screenwriter thing becomes a problem; At times “Valentine” looks like it’s a bit more complicated than it is. The killer goes far beyond his target victims and that simply opens up a can of plot holes that just don’t add up. Undoubtedly they’re there to add to the body count and keep it from slowing down too much but they mostly end up being head scratchers. The mystery angle of who is doing the killings is also quite predictable. Simply due to a lack of characters the viewer is most likely going to guess right but even then it’s not like everything falls into place. This is simply not a very well constructed mystery and the film’s attempts at laying suspense elsewhere is uninspired to say the least. Too many cooks in the kitchen (i.e. the multiple screenwriters) attempted to camouflage a very basic revenge story by overcomplicating matters when simplicity works best. Just look at the classic that “Terror Train” is!
I think that in lesser hands “Valentine” would simply be a generic slasher film that would be best forgotten. Blanks again stages every set-piece well and maximizes the suspense with well timed shocks. Without it ever being too bloody it does have the occasional squirmy moment of brutality and this Cupid means business when it comes to dispatching of his victims. The film is very well cast with Boreanaz, while at the height of his “Angel” (1999-2004) fame, being breezily charismatic as the film’s only likeable male and Richards a particular delight. Shelton, Capshaw and Cosgrove all make impressions and Cecere does well also in a rather stereotypical and thankless role as a detective. Cinematography by Rick Bota (“Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight” – 1995) is particularly impressive at times and the final act has a number of memorable visuals on display.
The presentation and packaging of “Valentine” is what ultimately impresses as story wise the film is severely lacking. Director Blanks managed to churn out a decent love letter to old slasher films that’s very entertaining and re-watchable and that’s quite a feat with the material at hand. I just hope Blanks can churn out another Hollywood slasher film sometime in the near future.