Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
The obvious temptation is to go with Jordan Peele’s Us for the letter “U,” but that choice seems both too recent and too obvious for our purposes. Instead, let’s reassess an underappreciated piece of top-tier popcorn entertainment from the late 1990s, cast aside at the time of its release for its obvious dependence upon the meta-slasher precedent set by Scream. I’m talking, of course, about Urban Legend.
This is one of those films that is impossible to discuss, on some level, without comparison to another that set the stage for it. Every conversation about Urban Legend is always going to trend in the direction of Scream at some point, because it was unleashed on an audience that had just consumed Scream and Scream 2 in the two years prior. For some horror geeks, the unavoidable inspiration drawn from Scream is enough to immediately label Urban Legend a wan imitation. To others, it’s part of the same gleefully metatextual family tree, every bit as relevant (if not quite as creative) as Wes Craven’s reinvigoration of the American slasher genre. It exists proudly in the same continuum as the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer as teen slasher films that are lumped into the post-Scream boom.
But Urban Legend isn’t just a bald-faced copycat—it aspires to at least a bit more than that. Where Scream revolved around the conventions of the slasher genre itself, Urban Legend is a paean to both the campfire ghost story and the pre-internet sharing of oral tradition. That isn’t to say it isn’t also about horror movies, as a wealth of cameos from the likes of Robert Englund, Brad Dourif and Danielle Harris would indicate, but its murders are far more committed to their elaborate (often ludicrous, in a good way) theming. Where the teens of Scream mostly just get stabbed, the cast of Urban Legend suffers through some truly oddball demises, including the infamous “death via Pop Rox and bleach.” Urban Legend commits 110% to its wackadoo premise.
The setting: A large American liberal arts university, suspiciously similar in appearance to the one seen by audiences a year earlier in Scream 2. A vicious murder has put the campus on edge—particularly smart girl Natalie (a flame-haired Alicia Witt), who begins to suspect that subsequent killings might have something to do with baggage she tried to leave behind before college. By sheer coincidence, the murders also seem to be copying the techniques of a wide variety of popular urban legends—could it have something to do with the literal class on urban legends that all the characters are attending?
It’s not the most believable setup for a serious horror film, but for a campy slasher it does just fine, providing a framework for creative kills of nubile young talents. The film is filled to the brim with young, notable actors of the day—in addition to Witt, there’s Tara Reid, Joshua Jackson, Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum and more, all of whom you’re invited to suspect at one point or another. Nearly every widespread urban legend is directly emulated or referenced, from “the killer in the backseat,” to Bloody Mary, to the “flashing headlights” story of gang initiations. The deaths are inventive and bloody, mirroring the hectic energy present in the knife-waving Ghostface chase sequences of Scream.
Does it always make sense? That’s a big negatory. Urban Legend does its best, in fact, to throw suspicion in odd directions through moments that turn out to be astoundingly contrived coincidences, and it possesses more red herrings than it knows what to do with, but it’s all in good fun. Between the charisma of its core cast and the scenery chewing appearances from the supporting stars, Englund in particular, it’s simply hard to dislike the overall presentation. If slasher movies are your version of cinematic comfort food, then you can consider Urban Legend a stick-to-your-ribs sort of meal.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.