Urban Legend just does not get the respect it deserves. Far from being a Scream clone, it is one of the most impressive slasher films of recent years in my opinion. The suspense is sustained throughout, the identification of the killer is handled superbly, and the ending is well-nigh perfect. The cast is simply terrific; how many horror films can claim actors and actresses the likes of Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Tara Reid, John Neville, and Robert Englund? I would not have minded a little more gore, but there's an acceptable level of blood and suffering here. It all really starts with the impressive storyline, though. A serial killer who constructs his/her kills on urban legends - fantastic. Maybe it's not a wholly original idea, but no film had ever taken the premise to the extreme the way Urban Legend did.
It is so important for a film such as this to start off with a real bang, and Urban Legend wastes no time sinking its claws into the audience. A young girl just manages to make it to a gas station in the middle of nowhere when her tank hits empty, finds herself attacked by the strange, revolting attendant there, and manages to escape - only to have her head chopped off by a stranger in the back seat. Why they bother to do a decapitation scene and not show me the head is a question I have to ask, but certainly the opening scene tells the audience to buckle up for a wild ride. The setting for everything that happens here is Pendleton University, voted the safest school in the country by a prominent news magazine (despite the fact its campus security force consists of one lone woman). As we meet our major players in the film, the topic of urban legends comes up in the wake of the murder we already witnessed. Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt) does not admit that she knew the victim, but the successive actions taken by the mysterious killer place her right in the middle of things. Not only are the next victims her friends, she basically sees all of them get killed with her own eyes (or hears with her own ears in the case of the classic "Don't turn on the light" murder). Still, it takes time for her to convince anyone of what she is saying. Sure, the decapitated girl was murdered, but Victim #2 is a practical joker who probably went off to party the weekend away, and Victim #3 is ruled a suicide by the tight-lipped school administration. The murders continue, the tension builds up pretty powerfully, and the list of possible suspects dwindles as the body count rises. I have to admit that the big finish took me by surprise; maybe I should have figured out the killer's identity by that time, but I didn't - not by a long shot.
Among the talented cast, Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart give particularly impressive performances. Gayheart in particular really expanded her acting repertoire with this film. The less talented cast members, as it turns out, were pretty much the first to be dispatched, and this works out well. It's always nice when a particularly annoying character you expect to have to deal with until the end gets offed in the first half hour. All told, I actually consider Urban Legend to be a much more original, shocking, effective film than any of the Scream movies it is invariably compared to. The final revelations of this film, as I have already mentioned, took me completely by surprise, and that really doesn't happen all that often. Urban Legend has everything a good slasher film needs, it tells an original story in a highly compelling way that actually makes sense, and it features a real humdinger of an ending. This is the best film in this genre that I have seen in a very long time.