I still vividly remember watching Scream 4 for the first time and pinpointing the exact moment I knew the film - which wasn't exactly blowing me away at that point, anyway - wasn't going to come close to living up to the first two entries in the series. It was during the "Stab-a-thon" sequence, when Gale Weathers was seemingly a goner but managed to escape Ghostface yet again, proving that the film still wouldn't have the guts to off one of its core trio of characters that had been in all four movies, robbing the later films of any real suspense. Then the killer was revealed and my heart sank further, because it was once again someone who decided Sidney Prescott had ruined their life and had decided to ruin hers in turn. The specifics change, of course, but we now had four Scream movies where Ghostface took off the mask and delivered more or less the exact same speech to the exact same character, and I just couldn't be bothered to care anymore.
I also remember laughing my ass off at the conclusion of I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, and if you're wondering "Don't you mean I STILL Know...", the answer is no (though that film's climax is a howler, too). It escaped all but the hardcore fans, I'm sure, but there is indeed a third chapter in the Last Summer series, which ditched Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr, opting for a new group of friends who stage a prank that goes wrong and gets one of them killed. The others, naturally, form a pact to keep their involvement a secret and we cut to a year later, where someone starts killing the secret-keepers. So it's basically a loose remake, and not a very good one at that, but at least it's not finding contrived ways to keep the same characters around like Scream did. But then we get to the end, and like any good whodunit movie viewer you've been trying to guess who the killer is, and it turns out it's... Ben Willis, the killer from the first two films! Who is now an undead zombie like Jason in the later F13 films, and apparently just goes around offing kids who try to keep secrets, despite the fact that they never did anything to him personally.
But as dumb as it was, I can kind of see their reasoning - they had to keep their fan-favorite killer around, especially if they didn't have their famous stars anymore. And they had good reason to fear trying anything different, because Sony also released the Urban Legend films, which opted to change the heroes AND killer for its first sequel, Final Cut, which left it without an iconic killer to market things around the way they could for Ghostface and the Fisherman (and Jason, and Michael, and Freddy... you get the idea). To be fair to the sequel's creative team, the first Urban Legend didn't exactly go all out with its killer's disguise: it's a parka and... uh, that's it. The hood (as opposed to a mask or even a pair of pantyhose) covers up the face, so they didn't feel the need to do anything more elaborate. Sure, an astute horror fan could probably identify the film it was from if they were to see an action figure of the killer, but it was too generic to be used again and again, and so however you feel about Final Cut's fencing mask, you have to admit they were at least making more of an effort to create a traditional masked killer getup.
Alas, by that point (September of 2000) the post-Scream slasher revival was winding down, and while the film actually opened at #1 and ultimately outgrossed some of the others in that wave (including Valentine, which was Urban Legend director Jamie Blanks' own follow-up), it wasn't met with nearly as much enthusiasm as the original. By dropping that film's core cast, it came off too much as an "in-name only" followup in the marketing, as it only had one returning character (Loretta Devine's campus security guard, Reese) and thus looked "lesser" compared to the other slasher franchises of that time. Scream and the Last Summers got their big names back for at least one sequel, so to a casual audience member the thinking must have been, "Why couldn't Urban Legend at least bring back survivor Natalie (Alicia Witt)? Or even killer Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart), who was shown to have survived in the first film's epilogue?" (To be fair, they DID, for a quick cameo in this entry's epilogue, but they couldn't exactly show that in the trailer)
However, I truly think this was the right call in the long run, and has helped give these two movies a longer shelf life than the Last Summers, even if those were more successful at the time. Scream 2 managed to mostly live up to its predecessor despite the retread finale, thanks in some ways to killing off Randy (hard as it was, it gave the impression that the others weren't "safe", something the next two sequels couldn't manage), but otherwise it's clear to see why bringing back the same survivors in a whodunit slasher series is detrimental to their longevity. If you love Scream 3 and 4 I'm not going to argue with you, but even you have to admit it's kind of ridiculous to think that Sidney managed to have a boyfriend, a buddy, a would-be mother in law, another buddy, a half brother, and a cousin (plus her friend) who had the immoral fiber to turn into a masked murderer. And I don't know how anyone thought I Still Know's insane "Will Benson = Ben Willis' son!" nonsense was a good idea, managing to stick out as particularly stupid in a film that involved faking a radio station just to send Julie and her pals off to a remote island.
The Urban Legends avoid that, thankfully. The first film gives a classic revenge scenario: our heroine played a prank with her best friend that got a man killed, and a year later, someone kills the best friend and is now coming after her. Unlike most revenge-driven slashers, it doesn't open with this tragedy - we learn about it later, after the kill count has already risen a bit, so when you add it in with the red herrings it keeps the film more engaging than the average body count flick. Also, it's a bit novel (even somewhat risky) to have "the group" be completely innocent and even unaware of the Bad Thing that is getting them all killed, leaving only the heroine as the "guilty" party, unlike something like Terror Train, where they all played a part and are getting their comeuppance. Plus, the gimmick adds to the fun, and Jamie Blanks shot the hell out of the movie (utilizing possibly too many crane shots, though he defends it on the Blu-ray's commentary by pointing out it was the best way to show off the admittedly great campus location), so it's just a straight up good slasher movie, one that possibly didn't need to launch a franchise but could happily sit on the shelf with My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday To Me as effective "one and done" body count flicks.
But the studio opted for a sequel anyway, coming two years later from the same group of producers but almost no one else of note from the original (though the first film's writer Silvio Horta did contribute a single scene that was added in reshoots). This time the Final Girl (a pre-House MD Jennifer Morrison) is innocent of any past mistakes: she's simply a film student trying to come up with a thesis film for her final, hoping to live up to the legacy of her famous filmmaker father. After a chance encounter with Reese, who tells her about the events of the first film, she decides to use the "killer using urban legends" as a springboard for a horror movie. But thankfully it's not a meta thing - we don't see much of her characters or scenarios, but they are of her own invention, not restaging the things we already saw and getting cutesy with it like Scream's "Stab" movies. Alas, as you might expect, someone starts offing the people on her crew, and she has to team up with the twin brother of the first victim to solve the mystery before she joins them in the morgue.
It's actually better than it sounds, even if Scream 2 already cornered the market on some of the film school aesthetic. New director John Ottman (working from a script by future Emily Rose screenwriters Paul Boardman and Scott Derrickson) was channeling De Palma a bit here, giving the film a number of Hitchcockian touches (the name of the film award they're all vying for is known simply as "The Hitchcock") and even throwing in a Peeping Tom homage for good measure. And everyone seems to be having fun taking shots at pretentious film snobs, tossing out references to Godard and Truffaut instead of other horror movies like so many of its late 90s/early 00s peers. Film school vets will get the most fun out of it, I suspect - there's a plot point that concerns a hard splice in a film negative, and a kill that is drowned out by our hard-working director recording "wild tracks" with a group of randoms (for the film illiterate - this would just be screams and other background noises to be layered into a shot, as opposed to dialogue or something that would naturally be recorded along with filming). And I don't want to spoil the killer's identity for those who haven't seen it yet, but it's an actor who was a red herring in another slasher of yesteryear, so it's fun to see them finally get to chew the scenery as the culprit instead of being unceremoniously offed.
I've been a defender/champion of both films for years, so I'm as happy as anyone that they're being released on the venerable Scream Factory label*, giving them a stamp of approval that'll be far more effective than my sayso. But it wasn't until watching them again this week that it really sunk in how much better off they were for having contained stories instead of trying to find ways to keep the same characters coming back. That approach works fine for the named boogeymen of the Halloween and Friday the 13th series, because there's no mystery to solve there - they're just back for more and sometimes their survivors (i.e. Laurie Strode or Tommy Jarvis) feel inclined to get in their way. But for this trio of whodunit series, two of the three kept getting progressively more far-fetched, asking the audience to believe far too many coincidences and "I can't believe this is happening to me again" kind of plotting. Final Cut, while far from a perfect film, at least saw the value in giving the audience a fresh start as opposed to piling up the contrivances, and in my opinion is a respectable followup to its better-received (and yes, simply better) original. On the eve of Thanksgiving, I am thankful someone at SF feels the same way, and I can finally toss my DVDs and enjoy these underrated slashers in high def, bonus feature addled glory!
*There's actually a third film, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, which is a ghost/supernatural thing that retains the urban legend gimmick and has a quick mention of the first film's backstory, but otherwise has even less connection to it than Final Cut did. Scream Factory didn't bother putting that one out, but it's kind of amusing that the "Bloody Mary" game involves saying her name in the mirror - sort of like another much more famous horror movie that they're also putting out today. Heh.