Striking out in ‘Urban Legend’

Kicking off the first of four horror film posts this month, I caught the late ’90s teen horror flick Urban Legend (1998) recently on TV. I had never watched the film when it came out, because it felt like it was cashing in on the post-Scream spat of teen horror films. I wasn’t mistaken about that. 😉 The plot, such as it is, is about college students getting killed off in scenarios based on urban legends. Does that mean these urban legends are, gulp, real?!

No suspense in that rhetorical question, is there? Plus, there’s also no reel librarian in it. Strike one.

But there is a library scene in the film, so it ends up in the Class V category. It’s a short scene, a little over a half-hour into the film, when the main star (Alicia Witt, as Natalie) has finally made a connection with two recent deaths of her college classmates and visits the college librarian to research urban legends. OF COURSE Natalie doesn’t bother asking a librarian for help; instead, she randomly wanders around the bookshelves and happens upon The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. As you do.

Reel Librarians  |  'Urban Legend' screenshot

I also found it HILARIOUS that the prop manager didn’t even bother stocking the shelves with real library books. How can I tell? There are no call numbers on the spines or edges of the books! Strike two.

Reel Librarians  |  'Urban Legend' screenshot

Natalie runs into — literally — a classmate, Sasha, in the stacks. It seems suspicious that Sasha (Tara Reid) is in the library, as she is a character who has her own sex talk campus radio show — I’m not even making that up — and whose lacy bras keeps photobombing her scenes. Until, of course, she reveals that she’s there for an illustrated edition of the Kama Sutra.  OF COURSE.

Natalie and Sasha then look through The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends together, highlighting for the audience various urban legend-related deaths featured in the movie, including large black-and-white sketches illustrating the roommate’s death, the boyfriend’s death, and the gang high-beam initiation. After Sasha leaves — to do her Kama Sutra-related homework, natch — Natalie gains a clue by checking out the book’s check-out slip.

Reel Librarians  |  'Urban Legend' screenshot

The closeup of the card lists an author — Breen, Charles S.? — and includes the main subject terms mythsfolklorelegends.

By the way, the more accurate Library of Congress subject heading would be urban folklore. And no, there doesn’t seem to be an actual book by this title/author combo. (Yes, I checked. But you already knew that. 😉 )

And FYI, if you’d like a good intro into the more common urban legends, I’d recommend Snopes.com, especially their section on ‘Murdering Madmen.’

Although there is no reel librarian, this scene does fulfill a common goal for movie scenes featuring libraries:  to find background info that will propel the plot forward. It’s a oft-used cinematic trick to fill in those expositional details. And although Urban Legend is not that memorable, the director does employ some interesting camera angles in this short library scene. First, the camera takes a bird’s-eye view as Natalie climbs the library steps, an angle also employed above the library bookcases as she wanders the stacks.

Reel Librarians  |  'Urban Legend' screenshot

There are also interesting wide-angle shots with strong horizontal lines, as Natalie and Sasha browse through the encyclopedia.

Reel Librarians  |  'Urban Legend' screenshot

Reel Librarians  |  'Urban Legend' screenshot

The library setting, with its candelabra and classical statues as seen above, seems to be in an older building, or at least one with a nod to classical architecture. I’m not sure exactly where the library scenes were shot, but the IMDB.com page includes Trent University and Trinity College School, both located in Ontario, Canada, as film locations.

And by the way, later on in the film, Natalie teams up with the campus newspaper editor (Jared Leto), who reveals copies of the campus yearbooks in an alcove upstairs from the newspaper office. She remarks, “This is where you research all your lurid articles?” And, gasp!, the 1973 yearbook is missing — the key to the university’s own urban legend, the Stanley Hall Massacre. Do they return to the library to search for the missing yearbook volume, or for other clues relating to this major incident in the university’s archives? OF COURSE NOT. Instead, they sneak into the private office of a professor — the professor who teaches the folklore class, played by horror film veteran Robert Englund, wink wink — and nearly get expelled when they are inevitably caught.

Strike three.

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