In pursuing the kind of franchising hot streak enjoyed by the “Scream” films, “Urban Legends: Final Cut” takes a nasty fall. This sequel to 1998 horror hit “Urban Legend” is a poorer film than the paltry original even as it strikes a self-consciously clever pose. Eventually caught in the traps endemic to follow-ups in a genre now seriously cannibalizing itself, John Ottman’s first pic as director (while continuing his unique career path as also composer and co-editor) may amuse cinephile geeks below a certain age with a bevy of in-crowd movie jokes. But pic isn’t likely to sustain the breadth and repeated viewership of the first film. Release timing between two seemingly preferable slots — summer and Halloween — should also cut down B.O., while a killing will be made in ancillary.
If the “Scream” series’ deliberate self-parody, along with the all-out spoofery of “Scary Movie,” suggested that Hollywood slasher movies had finally reached their end point, the makers of “Final Cut” don’t seem to have gotten the news.
Ottman’s obvious pleasure in teasing movie references, and the dangers in indulging in that pleasure, are baldly displayed in opening sequence that begins aboard what appears to be a doomed airplane whose passengers and crew are being offed by a killer. This is shortly revealed to be the work of a student film crew attending rural Alpine U., home of the Orson Welles Film Complex, “the greatest film school that ever existed,” according to its dean (Chas Lawther).
The spring semester launches a competish for school’s annual Hitchcock Award for best thesis film. Under tutelage of professor Solomon (Hart Bochner), students Amy (Jennifer Morrison), Travis (Matthew Davis), Graham (Joseph Lawrence) and Toby (Anson Mount) embark on their projects.
While Toby shoots the airborne thriller starring Sandra (Jessica Cauffiel), and Graham flaunts his deeper-than-deep Hollywood connections, Travis struggles with a piece of personal cinema and Amy can’t decide whether to make a docu, her first love, or depart into drama.
A chance meeting with campus guard Reese (Loretta Devine, major carryover from “Urban Legends”) convinces Amy to base her pic on urban legends. Back-to-back scenes are more contradictory than filmmakers seem to realize, since encounter with Reese is designed to hook earlier film’s fans into current action — she basically recounts for Amy the plot of previous pic — while second scene assumes that these ultra-film-savvy characters haven’t heard of “Urban Legends” at all.
That wouldn’t be an issue if Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson’s script weren’t so stuffed with movie references and jokes, from teachers opining about mise en scene and Godard’s “Weekend” to special effects crew of Stan and Dirk (Anthony Anderson and Michael Bacall) debating worthiness of George Lucas and digital effects. (Dirk’s cursing of USC alum Lucas is especially pointed, given that Ottman, Boardman and Derrickson are Trojans all.)
String of murders proceeds mechanically and with no rhythmic build, each deliberately referencing past slasher movies. Sandra’s killing explicitly recalls Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom,” but when Amy’s crew views Sandra’s filmed death during dailies, their general acceptance of it as being cool is “Final Cut’s” most interesting moment. Only Amy does not seem desensitized to the real violence; only Amy seems aware that something is truly wrong.
Pic slavishly follows in lock-step with prior film’s “Ten Little Indians”-like plot line, pulling innocent Amy into an increasingly paranoid situation amplified by the off-screen death of Travis and sudden appearance of pensive twin brother Trevor (also Davis). Coda repeats the previous pic’s trick of keeping killer alive, with a cameo by that pic’s baddie, Rebecca Gayheart, as an attentive nurse.
Far more assured than the film’s highly uneven sense of humor, Morrison injects a certain gravitas as Amy while acting the smart, morally conflicted blonde — appropriate to a work trying to dress itself in Hitchcockian clothing.
Double-dipping as Travis and Trevor, Davis can’t maintain a crucial sense of mystery and psychological legerdemain. Devine is urged to play more comically, which isn’t to say more effectively. Guys in support seem to be in their own competition to see who comes off as the tallest, darkest and most handsome, while Eve Mendes as a sexy lesbian crew member hints at more mystery than is actually there.
With Ottman as his own editor (with Rob Kobrin) and composer, pic brandishes both a choppy pace and a surprisingly crude, derivative score. Brian Pearson’s widescreen lensing is pedestrian, despite striking Canadian exteriors.