What hath Kevin Williamson wrought? While the horror movie revival spurred on by his Scream has yielded a few decent entries in the genre--I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween: H20, and Scream 2--it must be noted that Williamson himself had a hand in the writing of those films. Those Williamson-less post-Scream efforts, among them Wishmaster and the recent Disturbing Behavior, have been frightening all right--frighteningly, insultingly bad. Add to that list Urban Legend, which takes a promising premise and runs it through a predictable meat grinder of idiocy.
The influence of Williamson on screenwriter Silvio Horta is clear in two key areas. First, the opening sequence, like that of Scream, is an extended set piece detailing the singular murder that gets the proverbial ball rolling. This sequence, in which Pendleton College coed Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is decapitated while driving, also reveals the other obviously Williamson-esque touch: the killer's look. Dressed in a large hooded parka, wielding an axe, the killer bears more than a passing resemblance to the I Know... fisherman, sans the hook.
One thing Horta does not borrow from Williamson, however, is the intriguing premise. Students at Pendleton are being killed by way of urban legends--those contemporary bits of "mythology" passed from person to person, group to group, year to year that become so embedded in the social consciousness. It hardly matters if they are true or not, such as the tall tale that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died from a fatal combination of Pop Rocks and Pepsi (he didn't). Michelle, slain by the "killer lurking in the backseat" of lore, is but the first to fall prey to an urban legend come true; as the body count rises, fellow Pendleton student Natalie (Alicia Witt) suspects not only a link between the murders, but a personal link to her past as well.
The setup shows promise, but the story never takes off, due in large part to Horta and the director, the aptly named Jamie Blanks, who fires round afer round of his namesake in terms of suspense and scares. Too many of the would-be shocks are fakeouts reliant on bombastic music cues, and the film's chase scenes are riddled with the clichÃ©s that Scream tried to subvert, like screaming damsels knowingly running themselves tinto dead ends when they should--and could--run out the front door. But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to clichés; there's also the climactic villain confession, in which a contrived and way-too-convenient motive is revealed, not to mention the credit card opening up the locked door trick, which is a clichÃ© in any film genre. Banks and Horta's (intentional) attempts at humor are also lame; the fact that the best gags are lazy, in-jokey references to the other credits of co-stars Joshua Jackson and Rebecca Gayheart says a lot about the
imagination of their humor. Some laughs are also had when the rather predictable identity of the killer is revealed, but I'm not so sure if some of the more hilarious things about it were meant to be so.
The filmmakers don't get much help from their onscreen talent. I was far from a fan of bland I Know... starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt, but I'd take her any day ove the dreadfully stiff and uncharismatic Witt, whose inept attempts at emoting were often met with laughter; Witt has a perfect foil in her equally presence-challenged leading man, Jared Leto. Dawson's Creek star Jackson mugs his way thorugh a glorified cameo; Gayheart displays all the depth and range of, well, a Noxzema spokeswoman; and Robert Englund lends the film little more than his Freddy Krueger pedigree as a folklore professor. Granted, the cast is hampered by their material. Loretta Devine, who has done some fine work in films such as Waiting to Exhale, is saddled with the ridiculous role of a
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