On a stormy night at a gas station, a woman named Michelle Mancini fights off an apparent attack by a stuttering attendant. However, he was actually trying to warn her of an attacker in the back seat, and as Michelle drives off, the attacker in the back seat decapitates her with an axe. Meanwhile, in the student lounge at Pendleton University, coed Parker Riley relates to friends Natalie Simon and Brenda Bates how one of the campus halls, Stanley Hall, had been the site of a massacre in 1973. The story is discredited by school journalist Paul Gardner.
The following evening, Damon Brooks offers to talk with Natalie, who is shaken over Michelle's death, and the two drive into the woods. Damon is attacked by a killer in a hooded parka, who hangs him from a tree with the rope attached to the car. As the killer approaches Natalie, she attempts to run him over, strangling Damon to death in the process. As the killer recovers, Natalie tries to drive away but Damon's body lands on top of the car, forcing Natalie to flee and alerts security guard Reese Wilson who doesn't believe her when they find the car and Damon's corpse missing.
Realizing Damon and Michelle's murders resemble urban legends, Natalie goes to the library to research. She runs into her classmate Sasha who tries to assure her that the murders are unrelated. While she is away, her goth roommate Tosh, is strangled to death by the killer. Thinking her roommate is merely engaging in sexual activity, Natalie doesn't turn on the lights and goes to bed. In the morning, Natalie discovers her corpse and the words, "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light?" scrawled on the wall in blood. Distraught over Tosh's death, Natalie confesses to Brenda about her past: One night Natalie and Michelle re-enacted an urban legend; they were driving with their headlights turned off and pursued the first driver who flashed them, causing him to run off the road and die in the crash. Next, the school dean Adams is attacked in the parking garage and run over by his car. Later the same evening, Reese finds Professor Wexler's office in disarray and covered in blood. Meanwhile, Paul has discovered the Stanley Hall massacre actually occurred and Wexler was the sole survivor.
At a fraternity party coinciding with the massacre's anniversary, Sasha gets annoyed at Parker and leaves to go to the campus radio station where she hosts a sex advice show. At the fraternity house, Parker gets a phone call from the killer telling him that his dog is in the microwave. After opening the microwave and seeing his dead dog, he runs to the bathroom to vomit, where the killer ties him to the toilet and forces pop rocks and bathroom chemicals into his throat, killing him. At the radio station, Sasha is attacked by the killer while on air, and her screams are broadcast live. Natalie runs to her aid, but finds the killer hacking her to death.
Natalie finds Brenda and Paul and they drive off campus to find help. Paul convinces the girls that the killer is Wexler. When Paul stops at a gas station, Natalie and Brenda discover Wexler's dead body in the car and flee, thinking Paul to be the killer. Natalie loses Brenda in the woods but makes her way to a road, where the school's janitor picks her up. When the janitor flashes a car with its lights out, it swerves around and pursues them. The janitor's car is forced off the road, but Natalie survives and makes her way towards Stanley Hall. She hears Brenda screaming from inside. When Natalie breaks into the building, she discovers Brenda lying on a bed. As Natalie starts crying, Brenda sits up and knocks her unconscious.
Upon regaining consciousness, Natalie finds herself tied to a bed and gagged. The killer comes in and unmasks herself as Brenda, who plays mind games with Natalie and taunts her. She reveals that the young man Natalie and Michelle killed was Brenda's boyfriend, David Evans, and she is now exacting her revenge. She begins to cut Natalie's stomach in the fashion of the "Kidney Heist" legend, when Reese rushes in and forces Brenda away at gunpoint. Reese frees one of Natalie's hands; however, Brenda tries to stab her with a switchblade and the two struggle for Reese's gun. Brenda is able to shoot Reese and stops Natalie from escaping. Paul then appears and tries to trick Brenda into thinking that he will help her frame Wexler for the murders, but she doesn't believe him. As Brenda is deciding whether to shoot Paul or Natalie, the wounded Reese shoots Brenda in the elbow with another gun. Natalie grabs the gun and shoots Brenda, who falls through a window.
Natalie and Paul drive away to get help. Suddenly, Brenda appears in the backseat and attacks them with the axe. Paul crashes on a bridge, sending Brenda through the windshield and into the river below. The film's events are then revealed to be an urban legend being told among a different group of students at a different university, who say that Brenda's body was never found. Most of them disbelieve the tale with the exception of one young woman, who is revealed to be Brenda. She claims that the story is incorrect and begins to tell them how it "really goes."Jared Leto as Paul Gardner
Alicia Witt as Natalie Simon
Rebecca Gayheart as Brenda Bates
Tara Reid as Sasha Thomas
Michael Rosenbaum as Parker Riley
Loretta Devine as Reese Wilson
Joshua Jackson as Damon Brooks
John Neville as Dean Adams
Julian Richings as Weird Janitor
Robert Englund as Professor Wexler
Danielle Harris as Tosh Guaneri
Natasha Gregson Wagner as Michelle Mancini
Stephanie Anne Mills as Felicia
Brad Dourif as Michael McDonnell
The film depicts various urban legends, some of which are featured as murder sequences and others that are merely referenced or discussed in passing.Michelle is murdered by a killer in the backseat. This legend is also referenced by various people looking at the backseat or talking about it.
Coverage of Michelle's murder in the university newspaper is covered up by the dean, referencing the "University cover-up of campus murder," and the subsequent fears of the students reference the "Hatchet man" legend, which has an unnamed killer targeting college campuses at random. The origins of the latter have been traced to serial killer Richard Speck.
Brenda and Natalie attempt to invoke Bloody Mary at the entrance to Stanley Hall.
Professor Wexler suggests eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda at the same time. The death of Little Mikey from this is mentioned by Brenda. The killer later re-enacts this legend on Parker, substituting soda with cleaning chemicals.
Damon is hung from a tree while Natalie is waiting in the car below.
Gangs driving with their headlights turned off, pursuing the first driver to flash them and running him off the road, is mentioned by Sasha in the library. It is later revealed that Natalie and Michelle did this, killing a young man; it is subsequently re-enacted by the killer on Natalie and the janitor and finally revealed as central to the killer's motive.
Natalie finds her roommate strangled to death next to her with the note "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light?"
The "ankle slasher under the car" legend is re-enacted on Dean Adams.
A guest at the fraternity party claims that the song "Love Rollercoaster" contains a real murder scream; meanwhile, Sasha screams for her life on air during her radio broadcast.
Parker finds the remains of his dog in the microwave, resembling the "Old Lady dries wet dog in microwave" legend.
Brenda attempts to re-enact the "kidney heist" on Natalie.
A caller to Sasha's radio show states that she replaced her roommate's birth control pills with baby aspirin.
A caller to Sasha's radio show asks about having her stomach pumped after performing oral sex and ingesting semen.
A couple suffering from penis captivus call in to Sasha's radio show.
Professor Wexler discusses the babysitter and the man upstairs legend during his lecture, and Brenda claims it happened in her hometown.
Parker suggests placing spider eggs in Bubble Yum as the killer's next move.
Urban Legend premiered in the United States on September 25, 1998. The film earned $10.5 million in its opening weekend (nearly recouping its $14 million budget), showing at 2,257 theaters across the United States. It would go on to gross $38 million domestically, and earn an additional $34 million internationally.
Urban Legend received largely negative reviews from critics, and as of 2017, has a 20% approval rating on the internet aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics drew negative comparisons to Wes Craven's Scream, release two years prior.
Anita Gates of The New York Times gave the film a positive review, calling the film a "teen-age moviegoer's dream," adding: "It has familiar young television stars, familiar older stars with cult followings (Robert Englund as the aforementioned professor, John Neville as the dean), an edgy sense of humor, a tricky plot and characters too genre-savvy for their own good. Maybe there will be an oversaturation of Scream-inspired horror films someday soon, but this one feels fresh." Bob Heisler of the Los Angeles Times gave the film a negative review, calling it an unoriginal "low-voltage drive-in movie, made strictly by-the-book."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film two out of five stars, but gave it mildly positive acclaim, praising Christopher Young's musical score, and adding: "The film is competently made, and the attractive cast emotes and screams energetically, and does a good job of unwisely grabbing one another by the shoulders." Entertainment Weekly's Ty Burr noted of the film: "Proficiently filmed and utterly uninspired, it at least features a ghostly lead performance by Cybill's Alicia Witt and a final twist that’s entertainingly stupid. But why do all the characters have to be such nasty little dorks? Oh, right, otherwise we’d care about them." Kim Newman of the British publication Sight & Sound gave the film a mildly positive review, writing: "Urban Legend manages somehow to be rather endearing, from Natasha Gregson Wagner's opening bit (what must now, after Scream, be called 'the Drew Barrymore position') to the hokey shaggy-dog punchline."
Urban Legend was released on DVD by Columbia-TriStar Home Video on February 23, 1999. The release contained an audio commentary with director Blanks, writer Horta, and actor Michael Rosenbaum, as well as a making-of-featurette. The film received a region-free Blu-ray release on July 22, 2008 by Sony.
There were two soundtracks released on behalf of this film; composer Christopher Young's original score and the original motion picture soundtrack.
Additional songs featured in the film:"Save Yourself" by Stabbing Westward
"Zoot Suit Riot" by Cherry Poppin' Daddies
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler
"Comin' Back" by The Crystal Method
"Spookshow Baby" by Rob Zombie
"Crop Circle" by Monster Magnet
"I Don't Want to Wait" by Paula Cole
"The End of Sugarman" by Roy Ayers
"I Know God" by David Ivy
Koven, Mikel (2008). Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-810-86025-4.
Tucker, Elizabeth (2005). Campus Legends: A Handbook: A Handbook. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-03816-7.