Legend has it that killers return to the scene of the crime. And so it is with studio execs who revisit familiar material in order to replicate their earlier successes. In this case, “Urban Legend,” a formulaic teen horror film, retreads some of the same thematic ground as last year’s hit “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” But because it adds little new to the formula and lacks the star power of the earlier film, this new pic should expect middling B.O., followed by a healthy video shelf life.
One of the more striking features of late-’90s teen horror films (“Scream,” “I Know What You Did,” “Halloween H20”) is their use of late-’70s and ’80s horror films as a common reference point; they assume their audience has spent countless hours cowering in horror from franchise villains Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, and they update the formula with a dose of self-reflexive humor. “Urban Legend” is no exception, though its references are slightly more oblique.
Set at the fictitious Pendleton U. (where better than a college campus to find an assortment of freshly scrubbed youths?), the film finds a close-knit group of friends debating the veracity of a campus legend. Some 25 years ago, Pendleton was supposedly the scene of a grotesque student massacre by a deranged professor, yet no evidence of the crime remains. Coincidentally, these same students have enrolled in a class on American folklore taught by the enigmatic Professor Wexler (Robert Englund, aka Freddy Krueger of “Nightmare on Elm Street”). Exposing urban myths as “cultural admonitions,” Wexler urges his students to investigate the tales they have come to believe.
Before long, a lunatic begins a killing spree in the tradition of various urban legends. An attractive coed is brutally decapitated by a stranger lurking in the back seat of her car; an arrogant frat boy is force-fed Drano; a goofy prankster is ambushed while urinating in the woods; even a pet is microwaved.
After she witnesses one of the murders, level-headed Natalie (Alicia Witt) fears for her life and reports the crime to various campus authority figures, all of whom inexplicably dismiss the incident as a prank and rebuff her as a troublemaker.
Briefly, the premise is intriguing; one wonders which urban myth will next be played out and in what context. Before long, however, the suspense becomes repetitious and predictable. In its denouement, the film breaks faith with its audience, violating credibility in an attempt to deliver a surprise villain. Silvio Horta’s script makes ample use of the genre’s conventions, including red herrings and cryptic warnings, but it never rises above the conventional to the realm of the truly imaginative.
With its mildly witty Kevin Williamson-type banter — apparently de rigueur for the genre du jour — Horta’s dialogue occasionally entertains but fails to develop characters enough to evoke audience sympathy. Ditto the directing by first-time Aussie helmer Jamie Blanks, who forgoes slow-building suspense in favor of flashing scary figures into the frame every few minutes. Chances are that even fainthearted filmgoers will be inured to this technique before the film is over.
“Urban Legend” is at its best when it winks at itself, its genre and its audience, such as in the casting of Englund and, too briefly, a scene in which a radio plays a few bars of Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait,” perhaps better known as the theme music from the TV show “Dawson’s Creek” (Joshua Jackson, an actor from that series, has a supporting role here). These moments, though, are too few and far between.
Tech credits are up to par. James Chressanthis’ camerawork, abetted by Charles Breen’s production design, renders Pendleton U. an eerie, dimly lit campus of muted colors and creeping shadows. The youthful cast, including Jared Leto, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Michael Rosenbaum, is generally solid. Christopher Young’s music strikes the right notes of terror, even when the tune is a bit too familiar.