Thursday, July 1, 2010

Urban Legend (1998)

by Jimmy “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” Callaway

A lotta my friends grew up out in the Imperial Valley, a big farm community about 150 miles east of San Diego and a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Every one I’ve asked grew up hearing about La Llorona. A legend going back to the time of the invasion of Cortés, possibly further, the story goes that a woman drowned her kids so she could be with another man, who went ahead and took a pass anyway, causing her to then drown herself. Or something like that—there are always variations in how the story’s told. The important part is La Llorona’s ghost haunts the waterways of the American Southwest, and if you hear her mournful cry, that means you are marked for death.

Clearly, this is all bullshit. But in a place where there are miles of open aqueducts and canals that are deceptively deep and can suck an unwary kid to a watery grave in the blink of a cliché, cautionary tales of this sort, it can be argued, do far more good than harm.

Even a cursory glance at the rich tradition of urban legends shows that many of them hash out this way: Kids, it’s a scary world out there. The one about the hook in the car door is obviously meant to keep kids from parking out at Reputation Road. The one about the call coming from inside the house sends the dual message to young women to remain wary while simultaneously relying on male authority figures. And the one about the deadly spiders in the beehive hairdo is a strict warning about emulating the fashion stylings of the Ronettes.

Maybe these connections aren’t as obvious as all that, but once seen, they’re hard to dispute, not unlike my make-out skills. So it’s all the more strange that the slasher movie took so long to pick up on it. After all, the slasher film itself acts as a modern-day morality tale and seeks to impart these same sorts of lessons. Why it was nearly the turn of the century before this particular connection was exploited is beyond me.

It is just this concept of intertextual themes in American popular culture and their reflections of society’s mores that I’m gonna use as the reason that I really liked this movie when it first came out. It’s a much better excuse for liking this stinkburger than the actuality, which was that I was a horny twenty-year-old hoping for a glimpse of Tara Reid’s boobs (which I was unapologetically denied. Y’know, it was cute in Scream when they played with that notion of the audience's expectations of on-screen nudity. But why did none of the rest of the derivative second-wave of slasher flicks choose to carry on this tradition from the golden years of full-frontal? I dunno, but I’d wager to guess the revival mighta lasted a bit longer had they done so. I digress).

Yeah, this movie sucks really hard. But let’s accentuate the positive first. Right off the bat, if Brad Dourif shows up within the first five minutes of your movie, I will do you the courtesy of sitting through the rest of it, and with a smile if you think to make him stutter like Billy Bibbit.

The killings themselves are a lot of fun, if damn near impossible to pull off. Of course, they’re all based on urban legends, most of them familiar, but one in particular I’d never heard of. Apparently, word around the campfire is when the Ohio Players were recording “Love Rollercoaster,” a scream heard on the vocal track was reputed to be the dying breath of a woman murdered in the studio. The Ohio Players, displaying great wisdom in the face of being in such a crappy band, kept mum on the subject in order to fuel the fires of publicity and cement their place in pop culture (although I bet you a million dollars most wouldn't know the band that recorded that song if you asked them. Hell, I had to fuckin’ Wikipedia it). How this particular legend is incorporated into the movie is pretty retarded, but I am certainly grateful for that addition to my general fund of knowledge.

But the best contribution this flick makes to the sub-genre is the character of Reese Wilson, played by the appropriately named Loretta Devine. In most of these flicks, the authority figures are almost always old white men, who either value social standing over public safety (cf. Sleepaway Camp) or who swoop in at the last moment to save the day (cf. Halloween). This is kind of a weird standard to defy, but Urban Legend decides to include an authority figure who is not only black and a woman, but who is neither a moron nor a savior on a white horse. Seriously, all the sassy black mama jive-talk aside (and really, who doesn’t love that anyway?), this is probably the most well-defined character I’ve ever seen in a slasher flick. Part of me wants to be cynical and say the producers just included this to avoid accusations of racism and/or sexism, but the rest of me tells that part to shut up and quit being such a poopy-pants.

But everything else about this movie is pretty gay. The cast is a veritable who’s who of late ‘90s WB shows, which means it's also now a who’s who of who gives a crap. Tara Reid gets a pass for anything she does ‘cause she was Bunny Lebowski, so that’s fine (I just kinda hope she doesn’t read this and decide to set my house on fire because, obviously, I would not be able to alert the authorities). That Pacey kid is all over the place with his bad highlights, the future Lex Luthor hams it up right alongside of him (although I really liked his turn on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jared Leto gets to act all pretty, and that Noxzema commercial broad gets to chew as much scenery as she can fit into her oddly large mouth (and of course, a reference is made to those same commercials in the film. Oh, ironic late-‘90s self-referentialism, what did we ever do without you?).

The pacing towards the end is always a tricky bit to pull off, and Urban Legend fails to do so with flying colors. If you like saying “Huh?” aloud and looking at your roommate (or your cat, if you’re a shut-in) quizzically while watching movies, then this is the third act for you. The dénouement is kinda interesting, but by then you’re thinking more about the nap you’re gonna take later and all the subtlety goes pretty much ignored.

So the main reason you should watch this is to compare and contrast and see if you can decide if fashions were goofier in the late ‘70s or the late ‘90s. Beyond that, you’d be better off looking for spider’s eggs in Bubble Yum as a way to kill an hour and a half.