Few things can prickle my spook bone like a good ol' urban legend. Sometimes I crave that sensation you get on a long, dark car ride home after a slew of ghastly tales have been shared, and suddenly the world you're driving though seems sinister, and out to devour you. The surrounding trees seem to grow darker, and the car becomes a protective cocoon that you don't want to leave.
As a kid I was fed countless urban myths, all presented as truth. My friends were major culprits, like their annual tales of the five-storey spook house a few towns over that was so scary you paid fifty bucks to get through, but received a ten dollar refund for every floor you successfully completed. (Yet nobody could make it to the end.)
But my mom was the Queen. She taught me all about the gang initiations, from the headlight flashers, to the kidnappers, to the ankle cutters hiding under cars. She informed me of spiders hatching in the girl's unwashed hair, spiders hatching in the boy's coat at the store, and spiders hatching in the cactus. (I am still afraid of spiders.)
Years later, the information age came along and Snopes.com was one of the first web sites I ever visited. I was soon shocked and appalled to discover how much of my world view was shaped by fiction. However, the real world presentation of these tales gave them a punch that no horror flick could ever duplicate, so on occasion I try to revisit that state of mind.
Last week I noticed that Urban Legends: Final Cut was on Netflix and made the mistake of tuning in. I watched thirty minutes before going into what I call "fast-forward bursts to the end" mode.
With my urban legend itch left wholly unscratched (not unlike the itching that accompanied the spider stories), I remembered a recent urban legend-esque VHS purchase, a horror anthology called The Willies (1990).
I just learned of the film a couple months ago, not because of its merit as a movie, but because it happens to briefly show a pack of Hi-C Ecto Cooler. As my life would have it, a few weeks later I found this copy in a waning home video store.
I watched it. Sure enough it starts with very short dramatizations of three popular ones: the Kentucky Fried rat, the poodle in the microwave, and the Disney Haunted Mansion heart attack. Then it goes into its original stories. I'm sticking to my "no formal reviews" policy during this Halloween countdown, but there's still quite a bit to say about this. First off, the cover on my tape does not come close to this superior, yet equally official version...
Cover via VHS Wasteland
The image on mine is most likely stock photography, and the fact that there are two designs, seemingly produced the same year, is a glimpse into the film's fractured nature. As the cover above suggests, there is a strong Creepshow element thematically, visually, and of course, structurally. However, they were clearly shooting for a younger audience. There are clues like some green blood that make me think the PG-13 rating was planned from the start, and yet I'd say it's a "hard" PG-13 at times. I'd bet it was pitched as Creepshow meets The Goonies. It even stars Sean Astin and makes a jokey reference to the movie.
The production quality teeters between higher budget '80s horror and something you'd see on the syndicated Monsters TV series from the same era. There are better than decent monster effects (I really like his design too), and there are recognizable character actors. Plus, Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gould make a bizarre cameo appearance as their Growing Pains characters! Yet all of this is mixed with some truly painful performances.
After a while I started noticing something that rarely gets my attention— the editing. Almost every scene seems to be somewhat prolonged, and many are unnecessary. There are extra seconds tacked to the beginnings and ends of shots, like characters meandering all the way across the set, or the camera lingering after the real action is over. Then I realized that the movie only has two full length stories. All of this spawned my unverified theory that it was envisioned as a three story show, but something happened with the funding either before or during production.
Aw, man, I didn't just review it, did I?
Anyway, if you want to see what I mean, the whole thing is on youtube.
While The Willies was an interesting diversion, I still craved an urban legendary fix so I turned to an old standby, The Big Book of Urban Legends (published in 1995) from Factoid Books.
It's not an encyclopedia or a social analysis, much to the chagrin of those who gave it a one star rating. Those types of books are enjoyable too, but within these pages is the work of over two hundred different comic artists interpreting over two hundred different urban legends; one legend per page in most cases. It's really good. If you don't believe me maybe you will believe its 1995 Eisner Award for Best Anthology.
The art styles are as varied as the stories, which emphasizes the different 'voices' of the storytellers. In any given group of campfire narrators, there are the guys who seem to mess up even the best source material, and others that know how to elevate just about anything to levels of greatness.
Though the book is divided into thematic chapters like "Moving Violations" and "Occupational Hazards," there are two themes that permeate the collection: humor and horror. Most legends have one or the other, and some have both.
Once I've read story after story about people whom I would not want to be, that dark-drive-home feeling usually comes creeping over me. I feel like a kid again, sitting in the back seat, shellshocked by my mother's horrific lies.
You can get the book used on Amazon for next to nothing. Be warned that there's some pretty grisly stuff that's covered, but it's probably nothing that you didn't already hear at summer camp.