The 90s were synonymous with the slasher movie renaissance, with many coming hot off the heels of Scream‘s genre-altering success. Urban Legend was one such movie to be lumbered in the ‘Scream rip-off’ category, but quickly rose to its own legendary status, gaining huge popularity due to its grim kills and undeniably haunting atmosphere. Now, 25 years on from its original release, Urban Legend still feels as chilling and thrilling as it did back then.
Join me in reliving some of the key things that made it so special: from its fantastic opening and its characters to its unique deaths and the legends they were inspired by. Let’s celebrate 25 years of a beloved movie that is sure to be on any horror fan’s regular watch list.
The 1998 slasher classic was directed by young, up and coming director Jamie Blanks, only 26 years old at the time. What was I doing at age 26? Still living with my parents! Blanks originally had his eye on I Know What You Did Last Summer and even directed a short mock-trailer but ultimately Jim Gillespie had already been hired for the job.
For many, including the director, it must have felt like fate as like Wes Craven and Scream I couldn’t imagine the thrill and tone of Urban Legend being ‘captured’ in quite the same way if it were another director. Blanks chose a less visceral style and a more muted approach that took the late Silvio Horta‘s idea and translated it in a way that encourages the audience to use their imagination, which worked tremendously well and, in a way, reflects the uncertainty and the unknown of any real urban legend.
The movie was originally set during the winter, hence the killer’s cozy parka costume, but production changes altered the seasonal setting. Ultimately, the costume was kept and although extremely simple in design there was something charming and accessible in its appearance. Slasher: Guilty Party, must have surely taken inspiration from this, as its killer wore the same style parka. However, it was soaking wet and slick with each victim’s blood… a nice added touch.
Horta’s script was also a bit different. Most notably, the ending was slightly altered: it featured another death and no appearance from Brenda. Instead, the new ‘bizarro’ group of students is ushered along by Reese. Once one of them, Jenny, is alone, her mouth is muffled by a gloved hand. An axe is raised into the air and then struck down, cutting to black.
Urban Legend begins in a visually striking and unsettling way and, like Scream, its opening sequence was important in setting the tone and brought the terror up close and personal, playing with the idea of folklore tales of isolated women and claustrophobia. But, instead of a girl home alone getting ready to watch a movie, it’s one girl driving alone in conditions fit for any horror.
Christopher Young’s haunting score settles us in to what will be an atmospheric and dark movie, one that’s immersed in dread and grandeur. We’re quickly introduced to Michelle Mancini, a carefree girl driving home in her SUV on a wet night singing along to Bonnie Tyler… the words “turn around” are cleverly used as a violent foreshadowing. She soon discovers she’s low on gas and is forced to stop at a desolate gas station, with a creepy attendant of course. Whilst filling up her car the attendant notices something odd and manages to persuade her to come inside, using the excuse of her credit card not working. It’s clear Michelle is wary and upon realising the attendant lied, she runs, fearing for her life. The irony of running from safety into the claws of danger is scary indeed.
Let’s not forget the harrowing words screamed from the depths of the attendant’s belly when he finally manages to free them from his stutter… “there’s someone in the back seat!”, a phrase that’s as iconic as any of Dourif’s memorable dialogue and sends true chills down the spine. As Michelle flees in her car on the lonely roads in floods of tears, rain pelting down on her, thunder clapping, a figure is seen rising behind her in the darkness and strobing flashes of lightning. In one swift strike of an axe, Michelle is decapitated, sending the blade crashing through the window, flesh, blood and hair on its tip. The image fades away, the axe vanishes from sight and all that remains is a shattered window. The opening sequence plays with that sense of the unknown where you don’t quite know when the killer will strike and in what way… and when they do it’s gloriously macabre and disturbing. It’s a treat for fans of cinematography and edge of the seat gorehounds too. Horta’s original opening was a little more macabre though and involved Michelle’s head rolling towards camera until her mouth filled the screen and the scene then transitioned to Natalie yawning, pulling out from her mouth.
Set at Pendleton, a grand New England University that’s a whole imposing character in itself, the story follows Alicia Witt’s ‘final girl’ Natalie Simon, who finds herself immersed in a sadistic killer’s folklore-themed killing spree… and to make things worse, no one seems to believe her. Natalie is joined by the enigmatic journalist Paul, played by Jared Leto (who seems to deny any knowledge of the movie) to investigate the murders, which coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Stanley Hall dormitory massacre. Along for the frightening ride are her friends, a perfectly selected group that reflects certain horror stereotypes… Brenda, Natalie’s loyal and bubbly bestie, Damon, the incessant prankster with the frosted tips, Sasha, the slutty sex advice radio show host and Parker, her frat-guy boyfriend.
Most of these characters meet their death in creative ways, all to the M.O of an urban legend of course. Damon is the first to go, and after a frankly hilarious scene where Joshua Jackson’s Dawson’s Creek theme tune accidentally blares on the radio, Damon practically lures Natalie into the woods with a false sob story about having an ex-girlfriend who died in hopes of getting a little affection from her. This fails and Damon soon gets his comeuppance and is hung from a tree above Natalie’s car in a version of ‘The Hook’ legend. The tips of his shoes scratch at its roof as Damon desperately clings on to life. As Natalie drives towards the killer, Damon is hoisted into the air and meets his end. Next is Tosh, Natalie’s extremely goth and extremely horny manic depressive roommate who is known to hook up with many guys on campus. Tosh’s screams are mistaken for passion as she is known for having rampant, loud sex with strangers and having been scolded earlier, Natalie doesn’t turn on the lights. Instead, she puts her headphones on and goes to bed as Tosh is strangled to death by the killer. Natalie rises in the morning to Tosh’s cold, dead body, her wrists slashed and ‘Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn On The Light?’ written in her blood on the wall – also the name of this particular legend. Blanks directs these scenes beautifully, using mostly implied violence instead of all-out gore, which suits the tone of the movie and the kills perfectly. Damon’s death for example could have been harsher and more barbaric if it featured the breaking of his neck when the car comes to a sudden stop but his actual death takes place off screen. In most slasher movies you’d be begging to see more but in Urban Legend everything feels just about right.
The university Dean is next to meet the killer, in a legend that replicates ‘The Ankle Slicing Car Thief’ or ‘The Man Under The Car’. He of course has his ankle tendons sliced open and falls onto a tire spike barrier. It’s time for the loudmouth frat-guy to die and Parker certainly gets it in an interesting way that mixes 3 or 4 legends into one. At a fraternity party Parker receives a call and on the end of the phone is a mysterious voice telling him he’s going to die… sound familiar? The voice taunts him, although Parker believes it’s just Damon trying to scare him using ‘The Babysitter And The Man Upstairs’ legend, but the killer is really using ‘The Microwaved Pet’ legend and has fried Parker’s dog Hootie in the microwave, which results in a bloody, uncooked dinner explosion of dog meat.
Parker’s ultimate death though comes in the form of the ‘Pop Rocks And Coke’ legend and the killer washes that down with a huge helping of Draino to finish him off. Sasha dies soon after in a twist on the ‘Love Rollercoaster Scream’ legend, as her attack and dying screams are broadcast live on air, which the partygoers all assume is some Stanley Hall anniversary massacre prank. Before her death she’s hit on at the party where a guy tells her about the song ‘Love Rollercoaster’, which is said to feature a real scream from a murder victim.
As well as having fun, creative deaths with a little bit of nuance to them, Urban Legend features a heap of horror stars, references and Easter eggs. Professor Wexler is played by horror legend Robert Englund. Michelle’s surname is Mancini, of course in reference to Child’s Play creator Don Mancini. The gas station attendant, Michael McDonnell, is played by Chucky himself Brad Dourif. Both Joshua Jackson and Rebecca Gayheart were in Scream 2 and Gayheart’s character Brenda’s surname is Bates, after Norman Bates.
Tosh is played by scream queen Danielle Harris, known for playing Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4 and 5 and even the creepy janitor went on to play Three Finger in the first Wrong Turn movie… and if you want one of horror’s best Easter eggs, Pendleton’s motto reads ‘Amicum Optimum Factum’, which translates to ‘the best friend did it’. Speaking of that…
The killer reveal is one of my favourites in any slasher movie. Taking place in the abandoned Stanley Hall, now a house of horrors where the bodies of the victims have been displayed, Natalie soon discovers Brenda’s body laying on a bed. As she turns away distraught, Brenda rises behind her, clocks her one in the jaw and smiles like an unhinged psycho. As Natalie wakes, the killer emerges through her blurred vision, yanks down the hood and Brenda states, “gotcha!”.
The finale plays out as maniacally as you’d expect with a suitably deranged Brenda revealing that some time before Natalie and Michelle had caused the death of her high school sweetheart and fiancé when they decided to drive without their headlights on and try out the ‘High Beam Gang Initiation’ legend, which is when any car who flashes their lights back gets hunted down and killed. Only meaning to prank the guy, Natalie and Michelle accidentally killed him, shattering Brenda and her sanity into bits.
The movie climaxes full circle with Brenda appearing in the back of Paul’s car with an axe and after a brief scuffle, rockets out of the window and into a river, never to be seen again… but, of course she is seen once more, and in a wonderful ending scene that sees Brenda alive and well, she appears with a new group of students wearing a ribbon around her neck. This interesting new look was inspired by the tale/legend of ‘The Girl With The Green Ribbon’, basically the story of a girl whose head was kept attached to her body by a ribbon. You could view this as Brenda being somewhat reformed and the ribbon representing her keeping herself together… or she’s a headless zombie. Whatever way, it’s actually a rather unique and satisfying conclusion and along with her genuine madness, makes Brenda one of my favourite female killers.
The cast is stellar, with many legends and future stars featured and as a testament to Silvio Horta’s well-written and tight script you get just enough of what each character is about before they’re killed off. Englund oozes wickedness and slithers through each scene with a smug glint in his eye. Joshua Jackson plays the perfect fool and gives the movie its comic relief, in particular, he shines in the famous pop rocks scene where it looks like he had a great time convulsing on the floor. Gayheart is perhaps the star of the show as both devoted best friend and crazed killer, especially during her final monologues where she gets to chew the scenery and puts that extra vigour into her character.
It’s in those moments where Brenda flips from maniacal to a tortured husk weighed down by grief where you can really believe her as a woman who has had her soul ripped out and replaced with rage. And let’s not forget the incomparable Loretta Devine as Reese Wilson, the golden gun toting, die-hard fan of Blaxpoitation movie Coffy. You could view her as Urban Legend’s Dewey, just lovable and a little clumsy, but her fiery attitude really makes Reese her own powerful character.
The movie is sinister and foreboding and genuinely has some of the darkest atmosphere in any slasher, yet also feels hugely comforting with its pure 90’s nostalgia. Even the neo-gothic architecture and set-pieces make you feel like you want to crawl into the screen, but that may just be me because I’m drawn to TV and film that features grand universities and even simply the university setting. There’s something enchanting yet spooky about them, which in Urban Legend‘s case really adds to the mystery and general aura. You feel like a small fish in a vast sea, yet when the killer comes, those walls close in and you’re trapped. There’s everywhere to run yet nowhere to hide and this was certainly a perfect choice for a slasher movie with a big modus operandi. The location scouts hit gold and chose the right setting, one that turned a simple premise into something far bigger… and interestingly enough Joshua Jackson went on to film the movie The Skulls there too.
Like Scream, Urban Legend paid reverence to horror in its own way and is a love letter to the genre. Truly a horror film made for hardcore horror fans. It did for the mysterious unknown and brutal possibility of urban legends as Scream did for movies and fandoms. Both subjects are rooted in inspiration, the unknown and what could become a scary reality if brought to life. At the time it was hugely fresh and had the genius of playing on those fears we all had in our youth. Everyone knew an urban legend and every town had one deep in its history. You felt instantly connected to its themes and drawn into its story, which makes Urban Legend so much more than ‘just another Scream clone’. It has its own lasting legacy, which, honestly I hope we get to visit again in the future.
It seems crazy to think that this movie is 25 years old, but it is. In another 25 years we will still look back on this fondly. As the saying goes… they don’t make them like they used to.