On its opening night, I went to see SORORITY ROW, a flick that is a silly remake of a just-as- silly 1980s slasher. Slashers aren’t my favorite horror flicks, so why this lame remake inspired me, I’ll never know. But inspire it did, and I set myself the task of reviewing a bunch of school-based slashers. Below is the seventh in this series of reviews.
Back in the 1990s when SCREAM popularized the phrase “post-ironic” with horror fans and Wes Craven told us it was okay for films to poke fun at the genre’s conventions, several films basically stole his concept and cashed in. Taking an interesting concept and driving it into the ground, most of these flicks were dreadful imitations that got worse the farther they got from the source. Clumped in with these films was URBAN LEGEND. This is a crime, as the flick actually hearkens back to a cash-in period from a whole decade earlier: the school slashers of the early 1980s.
It begins in a car on a dark and rainy night, as a coed from Pendleton University races toward the campus. Running low on gas, she stops at a station where a retarded Brad Dourif is the pump jockey. Something is wrong here, and things are about to get ugly. The opening will set off a chain of slasher killings at the key setting, Pendleton University. Ahh, but there’s a twist: our slasher bases every death, from the first to the last, on a famous urban legend. This gimmick distinguishes the flick from all the other school-based slashers I’d watched for this series of reviews. It’s a nifty conceit, and offers a few touches of originality.
Sadly, it offers the film’s only touches of originality, as everything else makes for a by-the-numbers rip off of a decade-old formula. Shot selection, acting and score all hug closer to THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD than to SCREAM. From the panning shot that establishes the campus, it’s the 1980s all over again. Alicia Witt is enjoyable as our heroine, and Danielle Harris is cute as her trashy roommate, but the rest of the cast is bland to atrocious; perennial butt of jokes Tara Reid proves she has just as little acting talent as Vanna White did in GRADUATION DAY. The film forgives this, as most 80s slashers did, because the characters are all expendable fodder for our killer; they all come straight from the 1990s model of the Generic Stereotype Generator. As for the murders themselves, if you’re dense enough not to predict every killing long before it comes, don’t worry, the music will inform you with a sting. It even employs Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”… a staple in the 80s.
Following form, the flick takes its original concept and does absolutely nothing original with it. Instead of offering up a fresh take on the subgenre, the plot plays the whodunnit angle, with several decoys and cheap scares along the way. Students gaze suspiciously at each other, staff and faculty, and we’re supposed to play along in this game of 10 Little Campus Indians. The body count ratchets up accordingly as the flick heads towards its conclusion, where one character will be revealed as the urban legend killer; a superhuman student who has great strength and can absorb huge amounts of damage without losing a step. Nothing new there. It’s all been done before, right down to the creepy custodian who cannot possibly be the killer, because he never was in the 1980s. Given all this, the film in spirit is more a remake of PROM NIGHT than the actual PROM NIGHT remake.
Oh, and let’s not forget the dialogue: “You guys, what if there is a lunatic on campus?”
I have to give credit where it’s due. One place where this film was far ahead of the curve was its use of cameos. Harris and Robert Englund show up in small roles long before it became fashionable to do so. Add Dourif’s inspired performance as the pump jockey, and that’s a triple threat of genre studs. Watching the flick for this review, I kept looking for Dee Wallace. The cast also includes a Dawson’s Creek alum, so it’s ahead of the whole CW actor trend in horror films as well. Not exactly a compliment.
Does all this make the film worth watching? If you’re a slasher junkie, yes. You’ll salivate as you watch an old formula done with slick cinematography and “real” actors. Sure, it’s all been done, but that’s part of the fun for slasher fans. If you abhor the subgenre, you’re likely not to enjoy. The big question is, would a SCREAM fan dig it? I would guess so, as it’s closer to the screen than most of the dreck that was to follow. The biggest compliment I can pay is that I’m not a slasher fan, and I enjoy it.
As for the extras, there’s a commentary by director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta and actor Michael Rosenbaum. They have fun with it, but a lot of it is nuts and bolts about the script and the production. This would have been a prime opportunity for the three to discuss this film’s place in the tradition of slashers in general and school slashers specifically, but it passes on that. Oddly, the three make references to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and PET SEMATARY. The making-of featurette includes a useless deleted scene. There’s also the trailer. WARNING: Don’t watch the trailer before watching the movie, as it gives away a major gag at the beginning of the film. Bios of some of those involved round out the extras.
URBAN LEGEND came out at a time when SCREAM had the hot hand in horror. It really should have come out a decade earlier, when it would have been more at home with school-based cheapie slashers than hip, post-ironic horror. Watch it right after SPLATTER UNIVERSITY and SLAUGHTER HIGH, and try to tell me I’m wrong.
One more thing: How does a film that calls itself URBAN LEGEND not have a character get eaten by an alligator in the sewer? Now wait a second…