Who's Who in Horror?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As Hollywood trends go, the poster for the new teen horror movie "Urban Legend" says it all. There, under the much-needed protection of bus shelters everywhere, rest six young, exceedingly beautiful faces that belong to names well-known to their equally young, if not exceedingly beautiful, fan base. Why, there's Ryan Phillippe, shining blond star of the teen thriller "I Know What You Did Last Summer." No, on second glance the bleached hunk is not Phillippe. It's that star of the WB's hit teen series "Dawson's Creek," Joshua Jackson, who is appearing with Phillippe in the upcoming high school version of "Dangerous Liaisons" called "Cruel Intentions," which also headlines Sarah Michelle Gellar, who, of course, is the star of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the WB's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."

Gellar is the blond babe on the "Urban Legend" poster. Except, looking a tad closer, it's not Gellar at all but rather the equally fair Michelle Williams from "Dawson's Creek." Or maybe it's the equally sunny Tara Reid, who also appears in "Cruel Intentions," but is quite notorious for never having acted in the two "Scream" movies or "I Know What You Did Last Summer" as have, respectively, Gellar, Jackson and "Party of Five's" Jennifer Love Hewitt, whose soulful face is kittycorner on the poster from Reid's. No, make that the equally morose Katie Holmes from "Dawson's Creek." Oh golly, never trust the vision of anyone over the age of 19. The brunet on the left is really Rebecca Gayheart, who did appear in "Scream 2."

And above her is Jared Leto from ABC's seminal teen series "My So-Called Life." Everyone who watched quality TV knows Leto, but then again, could it be Rob Lowe instead?

Uh-oh, wrong decade.

Teen movies and their attendant TV series have returned with the resilient force of acne on an adolescent's forehead. In the 1980s, it was the Brat Pack. Now there's the Tube Pubes: actors born and bred in teen TV series, for the most part, who cross over to movies in which they play roles that are often indecipherable from the ones they essay in the movies.?

Everyone knows the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. In the much smaller, more incestuous world of teen movies and TV series, there's never more than one degree of separation from everyone else and Neve Campbell, the 25-year-old actress who four years ago entered the national pubescent consciousness with her lead role in the Fox network's "Party of Five."

Following in Campbell's Footsteps

When Campbell segued to the movies with "Scream" and "Scream 2," it more than raised the heretofore lowly status of the teen-horror genre. The queen den mother of this group essentially drew a road map for every other young TV star's career trek into the movies. Soon, her ladies in waiting, Gellar and Hewitt, crossed over as well with leads in the super-successful "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

Unfortunately, almost no one knows--or at least paid to see--what TV's young stars did this past summer at local cineplexes everywhere. "Can't Hardly Wait" with Hewitt tanked, as did "Disturbing Behavior" with Holmes. Perhaps producers didn't pack enough young TV stars into each of these movies. Hence, the intense industry interest in "Urban Legend," which opened Friday and took in an estimated $11 million at the box office over the weekend. In addition to the four actors mentioned above, the teen-horror film (OK, it's set on a college campus) stars Alicia Witt, of the recently defunct "Cybill" sitcom, and Michael Rosenbaum, up next in the new WB teen series "Zoe Bean."

"It's great that these movies have come along," says Witt, who essentially fleshes out the Campbell archetype in "Urban Legend"--that of the spunky coed who is terrorized by a serial killer. "They've launched a lot of careers. These actors wouldn't have had the jobs available to them otherwise, without the success of 'Scream.' "

Nothing breeds excess like success, of course, and already the launching pad is undergoing a crisis of overpopulation as the second wave of teen movies now hits theaters.

"There's already a glut," says Paul Weitz, who, with his brother Chris, is directing Universal's upcoming "East Great Falls High." "The American people may be tired of anything to do with high school or teenagers by the time our movie comes out. 'East Great Falls High' is a movie that happens to be about people in their late teens and sex and peer pressure," he says. "We just hope that we don't get lumped in with everybody else."

Brother Paul confirms a distinction even though their film is set in high school. "No one is disemboweled or gutted," he says, in what may or may not be a joke.

Even "Urban Legend" producer Neal Moritz acknowledges a certain regurgitated quality to the phenom. "All these teen horror films were starting to feel the same," he says, commenting on why, as a producer, he's moved from teen scary ("Urban Legend," both "I Know What You Did Last Summer" films) to teen sexy ("Cruel Intentions").

Moritz, though, is not about to stop populating his youth movies with young TV stars. "You have a following with these actors," he says. "It's a free ad to get to kids."

Semi-Famous Faces Part of the Problem

The Weitz brothers, on the other hand, view those TV-familiar semi-famous faces as part of the problem. "We looked for really good character actors who had a lot of stage experience," Paul Weitz says of their cast. "Because of their stage experience, our actors were used to using the rehearsal period, as opposed to being utterly spontaneous."

For their model, the Weitz brothers looked back to an antediluvian era of teen movies--pre-"Scream," even before the first Brat Packer was a twinkle in John Hughes' eye--and took a lesson from 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

"[The filmmakers] took the effort to look for actors who weren't well-known," Paul Weitz says of the "Fast Times" cast, which included the relatively unknown Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage and Eric Stoltz. "Likewise, we wanted actors who the audience didn't know from TV, so that the audience wouldn't be thrown out of the movie."

Casting director Mary Vernieu adopted a similar approach to finding the right ensemble for Robert Rodriguez's upcoming "The Faculty," which features film actor Elijah Wood but no young TV stars. "We decided to go with new kids," says Vernieu, whose last teen-horror assignment was the TV-star-laden "I Know What You Did Last Summer." "It had to do with re-creating, getting a really fresh cast, so that when you walked into the movie you didn't have preconceptions about anyone."

Others are only too happy to sacrifice verisimilitude for the multitude of a TV star's panting fan club. "If it were a jump ball between two equally talented actors," says Neal Moritz, "I'd go with the one who has a hit TV show." And so Hewitt has another go on the big screen this fall in the sequel "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," followed early next year with "Dawson's Creek's" James Van Der Beek in "Varsity Blues," and Holmes in "Killing Mrs. Tingle," which marks the directorial debut of the "Scream"/"Last Summer" screenwriter who started it all, Kevin Williamson.

The Weitz brothers, though, may be on to something. Katt Shea, director of the upcoming "Carrie II," the sequel to Brian De Palma's 1976 hit, cast an unknown 17-year-old stage actress as her lead. "She's never done a movie, not even a TV show," Shea says of Emily Bergl. "Most recently, she was doing 'Romeo and Juliet' in San Diego." The director says her cast is heavy with young stage actors, and for good reason. "We made an effort to get the best. I have a great respect for stage experience."

All this stage stuff--it's a novel approach to youthful screen stardom. Witt followed up her four-year stint on "Cybill" with "Urban Legend" without the benefit of theater experience or, for that matter, any formal training whatsoever. "I just ended up getting roles and auditioning a lot when I moved to L.A.," says the 23-year-old. "I got a lot of practice that way. Nowadays, it's easier for young actors to break into the business. For better or worse, there's not the necessity to do stage before [you] get into films."

Ready to Graduate From High School

Teen films, anyway. Campbell and Gellar are rare among this acting contingent. Campbell's next film is a romantic comedy, "Three to Tango," which is not set in an institution of learning. Even more significant, she still hasn't committed to "Scream 3." Gellar recently wrapped "Vanilla Fog," in which she plays a restaurateur who falls in love with a department-store executive. Pure fluff, but hopefully, a rock-solid career change.

"We put out there that we wanted to have her come out of high school," says Gellar's manager, Booh Schut. As for why some of the young TV stars never graduate, Schut says, "some of these actors just don't have that range. If you've seen 'Buffy,' you can see that there's lots Sarah Michelle can do--from broad comedy to romantic to drama." As for the future of teen films, she isn't so sure. "It's a good place to start if you want to get into the movies. It's a bad career choice if no one goes to those movies anymore."

Are teen movies about to become the disco of the 1990s? Regardless of what like-minded product the movie studios have in the pipeline--and there's tons--it's telling to see how eager executives are to distance their companies from this trend. A spokesperson for Dimension/Miramax, progenitors of the phenom, says it has only two such films, "The Faculty" and "Scream 3," being readied for release in 1999, while a spokesperson for MTV comments that its TV channel is geared to teens while its films ("Dead Man on Campus," "Varsity Blues"), released through Paramount, fit an older demographic known as "young adult, 18 to 25."

Whatever. "History repeats itself," says "Urban Legend's" Reid. "After 'Urban Legend,' another 10 of them are coming out and nine out of 10 will suck." Even if the trend survives, which Reid highly doubts, this actress is more than ready to move on. "It's a real step up not to do a film set in high school or college," she goes on to say. "It takes you out of the teen entourage." Reid explains: "You have Jennifer Love Hewitt and then you have Drew Barrymore and Christina Ricci. There's a big difference. When you work with your elder great actors and can actually act on a level with them, that's when you get respect for being talented versus being some cute face that teens like."

For Leto, It's All About Having Fun

Leto, whose "So-Called Life" role led to his acting in a number of films, can afford to take an infinitely more relaxed position on his turn in "Urban Legend." "I never thought I'd do a movie like this," he says. "I try to think in terms of artistic integrity. But I told myself to shut up and go do a movie and have some fun."

Still, for a former TV star whose upcoming film credits include working with such A-list directors as Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line") and David Fincher ("Fight Club"), a teen horror film does not exactly light up the old resume. Leto just shrugs. "At the end of the day, it's all about who's having the most fun," he says. "And sitting around trying to plan the most perfect career is not the most fun."

Robert Hofler is an editor at Variety.

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