Urban Legend

Someone heard you being brutally murdered on the radio, and they told the world just how you felt
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1988
Director: 
Jamie Blanks
Starring: 
Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Loretta Devine, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid
The Setup: 
Someone is killing college students in a manner reminiscent of urban legends.
Discussion: 

A regular reader from Germany who seems to find particularly silly slasher movies absolutely hilarious wrote me to tell me about this one, and it sounded like exactly what I was in the mood for; a really stupid movie featuring really stupid characters who periodically get killed. So it shot to number one, and I have to say I was kind of looking forward to it.

The credits tell us that we have an all-star B-level cast. Joshua Jackson! Natasha Gregson Wagner [whose name I recognize, although I’ve seen the movie now and I still don’t know who she is]. And the piece de resistance, TARA REID. Oh, and Jared Leto, slumming, before he moved into decent movies.

So there’s this woman in this car driving at night. She almost has a near-collision that you might think would have some significance, but no. She rocks to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” then realizes she’s almost out of gas. So, since she’s passed the brightly-lit chain gas station, she has to stop at the gross, poorly-lit station run by a stuttering goon. He asks her to come in the station, and she does, but assumes he wants to attack her and struggles, runs away and gets into the car, only to have him scream after her: “There’s someone in the back seat!” Within a minute or so she’s axed.

We now join the student body of Maine’s Pendleton University [Est. 1813], where TARA REID [I think her name MUST appear in all caps] as SASHA is conducting her radio show in which students call in and air their sex problems. The first caller says she swallowed her boyfriend's jizz, and now she feels, like, all icky about it. Tara obligingly makes some blithely suggestive motions with her extremely phallic microphone. Oh, those worldly college kids of today.

We now meet our characters. Soon to emerge as our heroine in the red-haired Natalie, who I found somewhat wooden and unsympathetic. Then there’s Brenda, this sort of Amy Irving-type who is obsessed with boys and lusts after Paul, played by Jared Leto, trying to play it straight and not reveal how embarrassed he is. This other dude is Parker, and not present is Joshua Jackson with a peroxide job as Damon.

So this is one of those movies that got a notion into its head—in this case, urban legends—and tries to build a number of different scenes around it, which has the unintended effect of making it seem as though every single person on the whole campus is unduly obsessed with urban legends. Our heroes are all fascinated by them and talk about nothing else—and this is BEFORE the killings start occurring. There’s also Robert Englund on hand as Professor Wexler, whose lecture is about—you guessed it. By now one has noticed that this film is content to do anything for the tiniest effect, and false scares and long sequences that add up to nothing are common.

So apparently the first woman we saw murdered was a Pendleton student. Jared, who is an aspiring journalist, wrote a front-page article for the school paper that is so inflammatory that the dean, a reasonable facsimile of Christopher Plummer, has the papers pulled. This causes Tara, who has prominent black roots, to ponder how freaky it would have been if the murdered woman was listening to her show when she was killed. “Like, what if my voice was the last thing she heard?” unaware that this would be like, not be freaky to anyone but, like, her.

SPOILERS > > >
But it’s not too long before we find out that Natalie knew that girl! They were like total BFF in high school and one night they decided to scare some random driver-by who flashed his lights at them. They turn and chase him, and finally he goes off the road and is killed and the girls are totally like—Oh my God! She’s telling all this to Joshua in the car, and then he starts opening up about how someone he knew died—but eventually Natalie realizes it’s all to get into her pants. Josh gets out to take a piss and is seized, and then it’s the whole deal about how Natalie hears his feet scraping the top of the car she’s in because he’s been hung right above her! When you think about it, it really would be quite a feat to manage to hang a guy right above a car so that his feet juuuuuust barely touch without the occupant of that car knowing. But we know very little about the mysterious aptitudes of the serial killer. Anyway, Natalie drives off, hanging Josh definitively in the process, then comes back, the body smashes through the windshield, and she escapes on foot—and is apparently fine. The killer just let her go.

So after Natalie takes Reese, the SASSY black police woman who rehearses kiss-off speeches while watching Coffy, to find the body which is gone, she relates her experience to the survivors. Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire movie is, after Natalie relates how Joshua was just brutally hung and his bloody corpse smashed down through her windshield, she mentions that he had wanted to make out before he was killed, and Brenda excitedly squirms and says “You made out with him?!” Anyway, they soon all conclusively deduce that there is a serial killer acting out all the urban legends.

Meanwhile, Natalie’s Goth roommate Tasha, who is not what you’d call a chipper little chipmunk, is arranging an online hookup. All she needs to know is that he’s “dark” [as in into Goth] and does Lithium, and that’s enough. Please note how the actress was obviously told to smile smugly at the screen, and obviously had no idea what was going to be placed on there later. She gets taken over to the bed and killed, and while this is happening, Natalie walks in. Now, Natalie had walked in on Tasha getting boned before and turned on the light, and Tasha was not very polite about the whole situation. So Natalie assumes that Tasha is at it again, and just goes over to the bed and puts on her headphones while her roommate is being murdered right in the same room! In the morning there’s a note scrawled in blood above Natalie’s bed; “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” That, too, is an urban legend, but for me the creepiness of it is mitigated by imagining the killer trying to balance precariously on the nightstand while trying to write the note above Natalie’s head without waking her.

So the school tries to tell Natalie it was a suicide, and she and Paul start to suspect Professor Wexler [Englund] because he was the only survivor of the big massacre 25 years ago that has its anniversary that weekend. They break into his office and find a secret chamber with an axe, and assume he’s the killer, but they get caught. Now, what are we supposed to think of this shot below, with Natalie posed next to a female abdomen with a snake wrapped around it, and a book titled “I’m Eve” prominently in the shot? I guess we’re supposed to think that I give the director too much credit for composing his mise en scene.

Now the movie enters this phase where it’s trying to set up these situations where everyone thinks Natalie is crazy and imagining it all. Oh, and we find out she has a reckless endangerment rap in her past. My favorite part of the “she’s crazy” part is when she’s watching her friend swimming, when suddenly the killer comes into the pool wearing his ski parka [the killer wears a ski parka, it’s his schtick]. Natalie freaks out and breaks a window and everything, but it turns out it’s just another woman coming to swim! Who just HAPPENS to wear a ski parka over her bathing suit! This is also further evidence of how this movie will do anything, ANYTHING for a scare.

So now events have been leading inexorably toward the big frat party, to take place on the eve of the anniversary of this big massacre. Tara is there, and some guy tries to pick her up by telling her that the “Aowww!” at the beginning of the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” is a real scream, which is “Why it’s so real.” Okay, now obviously there’s a lot of interpretation out there, but there’s no way someone could ever think that was a real scream. I HOPE that was precisely the joke. And again, further evidence of how all anyone on this campus ever talks about are brutal murders and urban legends.

HOLY SHIT I can’t believe I have another page and a half of notes on this movie! We’ll go fast. So the killers pop’s Parker’s pup in the microwave [in the busy frat house in the middle of a giant party]. Then Parker gets Drano poured down his throat.

But now it’s time for Tara to get it! First there’s a PARTIAL power outage at the radio station, because of the huge storm. I guess the lighting only knocked out SELECTED fuses. So the killer comes after her and Tara’s murder is being broadcast on the radio, a-woah-oh-oh-oh on the radio, and you’re like HOW can they hear her when the mic is in the studio and she’s in another building across campus? I was simultaneously like “WHY is she wearing that stupid wireless headset when she’s being chased by a killer?” before I finally put together that THAT is how we can hear her. I can be thick sometimes.

So by now one has noticed that there is very, very little gore in this movie. So little I even looked to see if it was PG-13. Then Natalie and Brenda are having a heart-to-heart about how it’s okay if Natalie and Paul are falling in love—because, you see, Brenda has been desperately in love with Paul this whole time—when suddenly they catch a whiff of something foul. It’s the rotting corpse of Professor Wexler, right in their trunk! It’s a little funny the way they SUDDENLY smell it, having been in the car for a half an hour. So anyway, I guess Wexler’s not the killer, could it be… PAUL? Then Natalie runs through a marsh—that is dry as a bone, despite the heavy rains the just ceased ten minutes prior—and runs to the old, abandoned site of the original massacre, eschewing the many crowded dorm houses that are full of people. Upstairs she finds Brenda’s corpse!

HELLO, REAL SPOILERS, I’M GOING TO TELL YOU THE ENDING > > > But Brenda’s alive! And indeed Brenda IS the killer! You see, it was Brenda’s boyfriend that Natalie and her friend drove off the road that fateful night! And now Natalie is making to steal Paul from Brenda! The glory of this scene is that Brenda goes APESHIT and delivers this long, kooky scene where she throws MASS SASS at Natalie. And, of course, threatens to kill her. It’s really the highlight of the movie. Then Paul shows up to save her! And then there’s the whole you-think-she’s-dead-but-she’s-not scenes, and don’t miss another favorite moment when Reese is lying on the ground with a bullet wound in her chest, but is smiling, seemingly so happy that Natalie and Paul, those cute co-eds, have finally gotten together. Anyway, Brenda ends up getting propelled through the windshield of a car and into the river. We then meet a whole new crew of unrelated college students who are fascinated with urban legends.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was very amusing, especially if you can get into dumb college students in dumb situations getting killed one by one. This one was a little knowing in a Scream type of way, not so much because the characters were referencing horror movies, but because the point of view of the movie is very aware that you are watching a horror movie that in no way relates to reality.

My German friend was impressed by the cleverness of several of the elements, like the way the character at the beginning plays “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which was not only a right-on song choice, but was giving the character explicit instructions on what she needs to do: “turn around.” And he liked how at the very end the whole new crop of college kids are virtually identical to the old crop, implying what generic horror movie creations they are and how it’ll all just happen again.

The trailer shows a brief glimpse of a sex scene with Tara that was not in the movie, and you’ll find that scene included as part of the extras. So there ya go. It was fun, I was amused, and it kept me entertained until the end, which is more than you can say for a great deal of other movies.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, if you have a meta-view of how amusingly ludicrous some of these teen slashers can be.