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Urban Legend

Sony Pictures // R // July 22, 2008 // Region 0
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 18, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Urban Legend opens with Natasha Gregson Wagner yelping out the lyrics to "Total Eclipse of the Heart", macing a stu-stu-stuttering Brad Dourif, and then getting her head lopped off with an axe by a killer lurking in the backseat of her SUV. That's pretty much the roadmap for the rest of the flick: a sly and kinda goofy sense of humor, suspense that's drawn out in long, frenzied chases instead of just trying to lazily jolt the audience, and a smirking nod to some of the most notorious urban legends that've been floating around for decades. It's the Happy Birthday to Me of the
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post-Scream set and -- for my money, at least -- one of the best flicks in that '90s slasher revival.

It's been twenty-five years since some nutjob professor strolled into one of his university's residence halls, knocked on every door on the first floor, and slit the throats of whoever answered from ear to ear. At least, that's how the story goes, and no one really thinks any more of it than an excuse to get liquored up at a frat party, even when the body count keeps ticking up. Natalie (Alicia Witt) starts to see a connection between the neverending parade of deaths and mysterious disappearances: the killings are all based on urban legends. Y'know, that story about the scratching sound that girl heard on the roof of her car that turned out to be her boyfriend's fingernails as he was hung upside down by some psychopath...the babysitter that gets a finger-wagglingly-ominous call from inside the house, Mikey getting offed by guzzling Pepsi and Pop Rocks...

But wait! Is the murderer Professor Wexler (Robert Englund), the creepy guy who teaches a course on folklore and urban legends? Could it be budding journalist Paul (Jared Leto), offing his classmates to give him something to write about in the school paper? Weirdo janitor? The madman behind the original killings all those years ago that the university sneakily covered up? You know how it goes, though: some lunatic in a parka keeps stalkin'-and-slashin', all of Natalie's pals who snicker at her tales of mass-murder wind up dead, throw in a couple hundred red herrings, build up to the surprise reveal of who the killer really is, toss in a twist ending, fade to black, roll credits. Done.

Urban Legend sticks pretty closely to the usual slasher formula, yeah, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. The urban legend motif is a clever idea and is pulled off surprisingly well, and the movie does a nice job juggling its sense of humor with the scares. I mean, this is a movie with a rent-a-cop who can rattle off Pam Grier blaxploitation flicks line-for-line. Flashback...? Psssh. The killer totes along a slide projector -- hey, a visual aid! -- during the obligatory "this is why I'm nuts" monologue. There are tons of cacklingly dark gags scattered throughout Urban Legend that still get a laugh from me even my fourth or fifth time through, but it still manages to be pretty tense and suspenseful when it counts. Nah, this isn't the sort of movie that'll leave anyone plugging in a nightlight and cowering under the covers, but it works. The opening with the killer in the backseat of the car could practically play as a short in its own right like the original When a Stranger Calls. Director Jamie Blanks has a blast letting people get slaughtered in the background while other characters sit around blissfully unaware, most memorably as Natalie puts on her headphones and dozes off, assuming her
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Goth chick roommate (Danielle Harris) is screwing her Marilyn Manson-wannabe boyfriend and not...y'know, being butchered by a murderer in a parka. A chase through the student union with the killer poking at a slutty college radio sex therapist's fingers with an axe as she hangs off a balcony might be the best thing Tara Reid's ever been in.

Yeah, yeah...not all of it's aged that well. A lot of the dialogue is clunky, particularly all the cringingly bad, 8th grade-level sexual innuendo. Like most of the badniks in slasher movies, Urban Legend's killer can be in seven or eight places at once, leap out from the shadows no matter where you go, and wears the same brand and color parka that something like 70% of the campus winds up showing off at some point. That's okay, though. Urban Legend belts out a few pretty suspenseful scenes, it has a knack for upending expectations and taking some of its kills in a different direction than I would've thought, it has the Noxema Girl wolfing down a bag of Pop Rocks (hot), and Alicia Witt is about as drop-dead gorgeous as anyone I've seen in any movie, ever. Oh well. I like it.

Video: Sony dusted off the high definition master they struck for the first Urban Legend DVD all the way back in 1999, and that transfer is really starting to show its age. While this Blu-ray disc is admittedly a very large step-up over the nearly decade old DVD, that owes more to the unrefined state of DVD authoring back in '99 than anything particularly impressive about this 1080p presentation. While the 2.40:1 video is much sharper, better defined, and more richly detailed than the original DVD, it's below average for the format. Tight shots generally look decent enough, but the image sometimes loses enough clarity and definition when the camera eases back that some shots would be virtually indistinguishable from a well-mastered DVD. The image is saddled with that processed, slightly edgy texture that often pops up in especially old transfers, although the artifacting and noticeable edge haloes from the DVD are no longer an issue. Colors also pack much more of a punch on Blu-ray.

Urban Legend looks okay in high definition, but this Blu-ray disc is below-par for the format, and I'd bet a proper remaster would've resulted in a much, much more impressive presentation.

Audio: Urban Legend sports lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, but it's kind of a letdown too. Like most horror flicks, the sound design is pretty terrific, using the surrounds to flesh out an unsettling atmosphere -- particularly during the retellings of the urban legends, where almost all of the effects are rooted in the rear channels -- as well as punctuating all the jump scares with 80 megaton blasts from the subwoofer. Even with Sony giving Urban Legend that upgrade to lossless audio, this Blu-ray disc lacks that sense of distinctness and clarity I'm used to from TrueHD tracks, leaving everything perfectly listenable but kind of mushed together in the mix. Urban Legend doesn't sound bad on Blu-ray, but it's not nearly
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as much of a step up as I went in expecting.

Urban Legend packs on TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks in French and Portuguese along with traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Spanish and Thai. The long, long list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Arabic, Chinese (traditional only), Dutch, Indonesian, and Korean.

Extras: ::audible gasp!:: No decked-out 10th anniversary special edition? Nope, although Sony has carried over both of the main extras from the original DVD.

First up is an audio commentary with director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta, and actor Michael Rosenbaum. It's one of those laid back-and-quippy tracks, tearing through homages to oodles of other horror movies, pointing out sly in-jokes foreshadowing kills and giving Latin majors a heads-up who's under that damned parka, snickering at how ridiculous some of the plot points can get, and even belting out impressions of Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, and Jack Nicholson just for the hell of it. Some of the other topics include Urban Legend's deliberate lack of gore, defending the movie in that wave of Scream knockoffs, and how Blanks landed the gig by shooting a trailer for another teen slasher flick. As scatterbrained as this track can be, it's kinda fun and still manages to touch on pretty much everything a commentary ought to.

The only other extra is a really short making-of featurette, clocking in at ten minutes and presented in 4x3 standard definition. It's not the usual mix of talking head interviews and clips from the flick, though. No, this featurette is a combination of B-roll footage from a couple of kills, shots of Christopher Young assembling the movie's score, a quick peek in the ADR booth, and a deleted sex scene with Parker and Sasha plowing their way through the Kama Sutra. Blanks narrates over the footage to give it some context.

The theatrical trailer and cast bios from the DVD got the axe, and high-def plugs for 21 and Starship Troopers 3 have been tossed on in their place. Urban Legend is a BD Live-enabled disc, although at least for the moment, that doesn't really mean anything.

Conclusion: Out of that big stack of '90s teen slashers churned out after Scream raked in so much cash at the box office, Urban Legend gets the nod as one of the few that still hold up kinda well today. We're not talking about some quasi-instant classic that redefines the face of horror or anything, no, but Urban Legend makes the most of a pretty clever gimmick, there are a few decent jolts, and...okay, I'm a sucker for anything with Alicia Witt. This Blu-ray disc does look quite a bit better than the original DVD, although the movie could really stand to get a new transfer instead of dusting off one that's nearly a decade old. Recommended.
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