The coolest single element in the walk-don't-run horror sequel "Urban Legends: Final Cut" may be its atmospheric setting, the actual rural campus of Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario. With blocky poured-concrete buildings and a river-spanning bridge plopped down among wooded hills, the place is a bizarre stylistic mix of faux Frank Lloyd Wright and grim Stalinist modern; call it institutional gothic.
Trent U. must be a pretty oppressive place to spend one's college years. At the same time it should be a perfect setting for a horror film, especially one whose ostensible subjects are the anachronistic intimations of the uncanny that can still occasionally bubble up from the depths of the human brain, even in hard-edged modern environments. At the movies, of course, there's many a slip between "should be" and "is."
"Urban Legends" is the kind of franchise that producers love because the films don't have to be good to be popular--not with a premise like this, the endlessly mutating modern folk tales that even sophisticated city dwellers find irresistible. Factor in the sequel's ingenious setting, a film school packed with ambitious wannabe auteurs, and "Final Cut" has promising raw material to burn--and that's pretty much what's been done.
This killer-stalks-the-campus retread, directed by John Ottman from a script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, is exactly the kind of flat-footed stalker film that the recent trend-setting hits in the genre have been making fun of. It delivers bald-faced variations on devices that were originally deployed, albeit with a redeeming glint of irony, in the "Scream" films and in "Scary Movie."
An established editor ("The Usual Suspects") and film music composer ("The Cable Guy") making his debut as a director, Ottman, at least, has a couple of career alternatives to fall back on. The hard-working young actors in the large ensemble cast may not be so lucky. Even when the performers are well-cast, like TV veteran Joseph (formerly "Joey") Lawrence, who clearly relishes his smarmy turn as a smug rich kid with family connections in the film business, the movie often leaves them stranded, floundering helplessly in unplayable situations. The lucky ones get killed off early.
Jennifer Morrison (the ghost in "Stir of Echoes") staunchly fills the inquisitive coed role occupied by Alicia Witt in the 1998 original. As a hot undergraduate directing prospect, hard at work on an urban legend-related thesis film, Morrison's smart and sensible Amy Mayfield begins to suspect that her classmates are being eliminated, permanently, from the competition for a prestigious annual award.
Amy teams up with the hunky twin brother of one of the murder victims (both siblings are played by Matthew Davis) and a two-fisted security guard (Loretta Devine, the only holdover in the cast) for some late-night sessions of perfunctory detective work.
After sitting through a tired and tiring film like this, we're naturally tempted to write off the entire genre, to dismiss it as hackneyed or played out. But in the right hands the teen scare picture still has some life in it. Just this year, for instance, there was Glen Morgan and James Wong's "Final Destination," a smartly crafted entry with a playful, surreal atmosphere.
The "Urban Legends" concept seems tailor-made for that kind of ingenuity, for a little bit of sly wit and playfulness. Movies like "Final Cut" are bunker-mentality productions, safe, square and purely functional, like buildings made from poured concrete.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence/gore, language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: standard horror movie violence with a couple of inventively grisly moments and one simulated sex scene.
'Urban Legends: Final Cut'
Jennifer Morrison: Amy Mayfield
Matthew Davis: Travis/Trevor Stark
Hart Bochner: Professor Solomon
Loretta Devine: Reese Wilson
Joseph Lawrence: Graham Manning
Anson Mount: Toby
Eva Mendes: Vanessa
Phoenix Pictures presents a Neal H. Moritz/Gina Matthews Production. A Columbia Pictures release. Director John Ottman. Writers Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson. Based on characters created by Silvio Horta. Producers Neal H. Moritz, Gina Matthews, Richard Luke Rothschild. Director of photography Brian Pearson. Editors John Ottman, Rob Kobrin. Costume designers Marie-Sylvie Deveau, Trysha Bakker. Production designer Mark Zuelzke. Music John Ottman. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.