A group of college students is on their way home from their Hawaiian vacation. An ominous storm hammers their 747, as the camera takes you inside, where pretty couples wearing leis are dancing in the aisle, drinking, and putting their tongues down each other’s throats. One smart-ass brings up the aged specter of the gremlin in the Twilight Zone episode. Suddenly, disaster strikes: a knife-wielding stalker is loose among them, discovered by Beautiful Blond and her Ken Doll Boyfriend when they emerge from the bathroom, where they’ve been joining the Mile High Club. Suitably horrified, the couple runs and stumbles up the aisle, past strewn stewardess bodies, to the cockpit, where they learn that the pilots are also dead. Beautiful Blond screams. While Boyfriend bars the cockpit door, she proceeds to the instrument panel, where she struggles mightily, her eyes wide like a baby Julie Hagerty, to come to terms with the murderous asshole coming up behind her and the dials and buttons laid out in front of her. And then, she begins to fly the plane.
Yes, it’s retarded. But it might be that Urban Legends: Final Cut, the Sequel With No Reason For Being, knows that it’s retarded. For at this moment, the film does cut, or rather, a young male director yells “Cut,” and the camera pulls out to reveal another camera, lights, and a stage set, and some guy sitting on a board that he’s pumping up and down to resemble the kind of rocking a plane would get in a storm. The young male director even makes a crack about Beautiful Blond’s terrible performance. Ha ha. The trick is hardly new. Too many slasher films begin with a dreadful murder scene that turns out to be a nightmare, from which a pretty girl wakes in a panic, sweaty and trembling. She calms down, the audience breathes easy, and whomp, the killer is upon her, knives or hooks or machetes flailing. It’s a road-tested formula, proven over the years to get a rise from viewers.
Except that increasingly, viewers are way cooler than those filmmakers who resort to such worn-out business. These viewers have seen everything, they know exactly what’s going on and when, and you’re not going to get any one of them to jump—or even gasp—by sending a kitty cat out of the closet instead of Michael Meyers. In part, this jadedness is a function of generation: you can see every damn horror or slasher movie that’s ever been made on video or sometimes on cable. They’re at least as hip as the Jamie Kennedy video-store-geek character in Scream: they know all the tricks and the rules and, moreover, they know they’re retarded.
But this jadedness is also, more recently, and perhaps more significantly, a function of Scream, or more precisely, the phenomenon of self-conscious slasher flicks that make lots of money. Almost any slasher flick is self-conscious: Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left—both eminently crude and effective films—are also intelligent and insightful critiques of horror movies, family dysfunction, and (my favorite) consumer capitalism. And you can make cases for the social and political arguments lying just below the bad, bloody surfaces of movies not made by acknowledged masters of the genre, say, My Bloody Valentine, Motel Hell, Return to Horror High, and of course, the Chucky and Slumber Party Massacre series. Still, being self-conscious is not enough if a film is to run for more than a week or two in theaters, or even open in theaters, rather than going straight-to-video. A slasher flick must also make money, which, frankly, is not very hard to do, considering that the talent (teens in underwear) and effects (Karo syrup) can be had for peanuts, in Hollywood terms.
All of which brings me back to Urban Legends, after a fashion. As the second installment in what might become a series (and you can never tell what will become a series; just ask the Wayans brothers, who vowed never to make a sequel to Scary Movie), UL2 carries a certain burden of… let’s call it representation. Mostly, this means it must improve on its lackluster predecessor, which made enough money to warrant a follow-up (as long as it’s made cheaply, and so, investments are easily recoup-able on video), but did not set the slasher world on fire. At the same time, Urban Legend (singular) did set up the titular gimmick, which, on paper, is not a bad one: college students are killed in manners resembling “urban legends,” like a girl being killed during a dorm ritual when everyone else is screaming, so no one hears her scream; or a dog being microwaved (I have to confess, I had never heard that particular legend before UL1, but it definitely made for a yucky visual effect). UL2‘s burden, then, is to come up with more legends to represent, or at least stories that are foul enough that no one will complain. In other words, if imagination and effects and inspiration fail, the film must be clever, at least a little bit.
The cleverest thing about UL2 is its setting, a film school. This allows repeated allusions to previous films: the posters in the students’ rooms are credited at the end Touch of Evil, Rocky Horror, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die; the kids are competing for The Hitchcock Prize (a stipend and a chance to direct something in Hollywood after graduation); someone whistles the “Funeral March of the Marionettes,” like Peter Lorre in M; scenes set in a campus tower and an amusement park ride; images referring to films by David Cronenberg and Brian DePalma; and a killer in a fencing mask (a variation on the more pedestrian hockey mask or Leatherface’s dramatic human-skin mask). All this reference-spotting is good fun and provides a neat frame for the pleasure of watching Hart Bochner as the kids’ teacher, Dr. Solomon, Bochner being most wonderfully remembered for his charismatic turn in Martin Donovan’s brilliant Apartment Zero, in which he and Colin Firth become hopelessly entangled in a series of old movie plots.
Solomon’s students are headed up by a lantern-jawed golden boy, Travis (Matthew Davis), who is apparently the shoo-in winner of the Hitchcock Prize (you never see the film, so you’ll never know), and a tomboyish blond girl Amy (Jennifer Morrison, best known as the pasty-faced dead girl in Stir of Echoes). She’s just come up with her final project concept: a serial killer whose murders are based on urban legends. (Um, didn’t someone already make this movie?) “Will it be horror or suspense?” asks the suddenly intrigued and encouraging Dr. Solomon. He’s especially impressed that the idea raises several “Hitchcock themes,” like “paranoia, fear of imprisonment, wrong man accused.” (How does he derive these particular themes from the urban legends idea? Let’s assume he’s just especially insightful.) In any event, here you have the brilliantly twisted and doubled-up premise of UL2: it’s a movie within a movie about a movie.
The second cleverest thing about UL2 is that it brings back Loretta Devine as Reese, the cagey security guard from the first film. Here again, Reese is an enthusiastic Pam Grier fan, and she judges Amy to be all right, when she can quote Foxy Brown (“That’s my sister and she’s a whole lotta woman!”). Still, Reese notes repeatedly, Amy tends to do the dumb things that “skinny-assed white girls” tend to do in slasher movies, like walk to the library after hours in the driving snow, sneak into the campus tower where a fellow student has been murdered, get chased by the killer through editing rooms, basements, and tunnels that feature those spinning orange emergency lights. Luckily for Amy, Reese tends to show up at exactly the right moment during these scenes in order to save her skinny ass. When Amy tells Reese about her final project idea, Reese brings a welcome dose of working class experience and “reality” (at least as this might be imagined in a slasher film set at an imaginary West Coast film school, where even the work-study students wear the coolest clothing). She raises her eyebrow and sighs: “Mmm-Hmm.” And then Reese suggests to Amy that at least one of the urban legends she’s talking about did take place, and, as a matter of fact, it took place at the very college where Reese… used to work!
Reese is a little sensible for the film, which is, like most slasher flicks, silly and brutal and full of plot holes (according to director-composer-editor John Ottman’s very enthusiastic website “Diary”, he and writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson revised a lot). But even if incoherence and ugly violence are par for the slasher flick course, UL2 offers a few murder-ideas that stand out, appropriately ripped off from other films. One, a girl wakes up in a bathtub after being slipped a mickey, to find that her liver has been removed: as she tries to escape her killer, slipping and sliding all over the blood on the bathroom floor, he grabs at her, and locks his fingers into her liver-removal-wound: yucky. Two, a couple of young effects experts (Anthony Anderson, last seen playing one of Jim Carrey’s sons in Me, Myself & Irene, and Michael Bacall) are murdered while on the job, such that their bodies resemble the very effects they’ve been creating: double yucky. And three, another girl is chased down by a killer wielding a camera and a mike, in a snuff segment ripped off from Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom. As her fellow students screen the footage, they believe at first that it’s something she’s done on her own, “for her reel.” Their responses are fairly standard: “Eww!” “Bitch!” “Get her!” And then: it’s not realistic, there’s not enough blood. And when they do discover the truth, they’re only briefly chastened. Cut.