At a certain point fairly early in Urban Legend, the character Damon Brooks (Joshua Jackson) turns on the radio, and a couple of bars of the 1997 Paula Cole single "I Don't Want to Wait" play, at which he becomes overly flustered and scrambles to turn it off. The younger of you among my readers, or those with the blissful fortune to have forgotten the shittiest of late-'90s pop culture, will perhaps need to have this moment unpacked. "I Don't Want to Wait" was the theme song for a TV show that premiered in January, 1998, Dawson's Creek, which was a teen soap opera that aired on The WB. Joshua Jackson played a character on that show. So it's a simple little in-joke, but it's also probably the single most typical moment I have ever encountered from an American horror movie made between 1996 (when Scream brought horror back to major prominence after years in abeyance) and 2004 (when Saw reminded horror what it mean to be intensely violent and nihilistic). It's a joke; the great sea change of post-Scream horror was that it absolutely refused to be anything but glib. It's a sequence that insistently reminds us that Jackson was a TV star on a show designed to package nonthreatening sexuality for pubescent girls; teen TV actors had become all but unavoidable in horror over the preceding year. The entire genre had, in effect, been resurrected for the solitary purpose of being made toothless as a direct result of being tailor-made for a market of teenagers who wanted... you know what, I have no fucking clue what the people who made films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer hits wanted from their horror films, or if they got it. But it damn certain wasn't what I want from horror films, as I am keenly reminded every time I decide that I've been making too many good life choices in a row, and thus revisit the teen soap horror boom of the late '90s into the '00s to course-correct back into masochism.

Urban Legend has few merits or points of interest. It's among the most structurally pure slasher films of the late '90s, which is a polite way of saying that it's damnably predictable in almost all its particulars. That's a horrible fate for a film so entirely driven by a gimmick that it even titles itself that way. This is supposed to be fun, or some such; instead, it's the kind of movie that one watches with a sort of a mental checklist:

-Opening sequence with a random character who dies in a manner that clearly establishes the killer's, that is to say the movie's, M.O.

-The cast is introduced in a group setting that allows us to see their group dynamic, which in turn raises the question of why the hell these people are friends. They are each given one personality trait apiece, and it is instantly obvious which one is going to stay alive longest; she is a woman.

-There's a male who is not part of the group, but who enters into their dynamic slantwise; nobody likes him, and therefore it's a ticking clock until he makes out with the already-designated Final Girl.

-Rumor of a secret institutional history of violence is mentioned.

-A character actor, legendary among the target audience but still quite cheap to acquire, is brought in to provide some omnidirectional menace.

I could go on, but it's as boring to write as it is to watch, and I suspect as it is to read. Let me fill in some of the details: the first victim is Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who is killed when a creepy gas station attendant (Brad Dourif) can't overcome his stutter long enough to warn her that somebody with an axe is hiding in her backseat. She had some mysterious connection, unknown to anybody, to Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt), the Final Girl among a group including Brenda Bates (Rebecca Gayheart), Parker Riley (Michael Rosenbaum), Damon Brooks (Joshua Jackson), and host of a radio sex advice show Sasha Thomas (Tara Reid), who is by leaps and bounds the most interesting of the side characters, almost solely because her job puts her at the center of the only creative scenes. The interloping boy is Paul Gardener (Jared Leto), brash ambulance-chasing reporter for the school paper - I didn't mention, these are all college students. And about half of them are even close enough to college age that it's not worth calling them out on it. Some of them are in the folklore class taught by William Wexler (Robert Englund, the genre legend character actor), currently on Urban Legend Week, and those of you familiar with that literary genre already recognised from Michelle's death that the flashy part of the movie is that all of the murders are stagings of famous urban legends, except for Sasha's, which is a pure slasher movie chase scene.

The concept is sound, but it's gruesomely marred in the execution by writer Silvio Horta, a 23-year-old first timer when the film was shot, and much too in love with empty-headed "cleverness" to focus on nuts-and-bolts storytelling; Urban Legend is addicted to twists that are obvious many, many scenes in advance, and its organising gimmick is applied sloppily and with increasingly limited imagination - there's little doubt that the first two deaths are by far the most inventive and thematically focused (for that matter, the gas station is even beautifully shot by James Cressanthis, the only point at which the film does much of anything visually that I can speak of positively). Director Jamie Blanks, more a composer than a director by trade, doesn't help at all; not that there was much of a tradition for making slasher movies in 1998, but the slackness with which the violent sequences are presented, the downright charming inability to mine tension from scenes in which characters are mere seconds from being murdered, is truly remarkable. Usually even the worst filmmaker stuck with a bunch of vapid TV soap stars - and they are so vapid this time around, Leto is the only under-40 actor who has even the glimmer of an inner life - and a mandate not to freak out the 13-year-old target audience too hard, R-rating or no, can still manage to get the audience to jump a little bit from a shock cut and a burst of noise on the soundtrack. Urban Legend telegraphs every last one of its thin little scares so thoroughly that one rather sits down politely to wait for them, than springs back in alarm from them. It's wan enough to make I Know What You Did Last Summer, its exact equivalent from the year prior, seem halfway decent. Shit, it's enough to make Blanks's follow-up, 2001's dreary Valentine, look like a clear and gratifying evolution in the direction of greater talent.

A few sparks of life do show up, mostly contained in the person of Loretta Devine, who plays the school's apparently only security guard, an aficionado of the '70s action films of Pam Grier; while the young people are too generic and soulless to do much in the way of acting, and the old guard, in the form of Englund and John Neville, don't even pretend to care about the mechanical crap they're obliged to shove forward, Devine at least approaches her character as somebody with thoughts in her head that aren't exactly cotangent with the words she's speaking at that exact moment. It's not inherently great, or even good acting, but at least she seems alive, and that's more than basically anybody else can lay claim to.

There are also a few decent moments of knowing humor in among all the lazy smirks and winks, an inheritance that all post-Scream slashers needed to reckon with, and which some simply weren't prepared for, wanting to be serious but forcing themselves into irony for market purposes. Urban Legend is one of those; the more it resembles Scream, the flatter it goes, with its meta-narrative flourishes easily the most ineffective parts of a movie that's only ever ineffective. But I was headed in the direction of a compliment: a few of the sardonic bits are even kind of amusing, like the deadpan creepy janitor (Julian Richings) that the movie can't put over as a red herring no matter how hard it tries.

It even manages to toss in a few smart nods to its urban legend gimmick, though never when it looks at them directly; the callers to Sasha's show have problems that map to urban legends, the last scene quietly evokes the story of the woman with a ribbon around her neck. These are nice, lovely grace notes, and the film desperately needs them; for without them it is sheer junk, a derivative slasher that is worth paying attention to only in that its absolute lack of creativity gives it some value as a survey of all the most generic elements of the '90s horror resurgence in its second year, right down to the irrevocable time-stamp of the prominent use of "Zoot Suit Riot" on the soundtrack

Body Count: That depends on how exactly you want to interpret the last scene: in keeping with the urban legend motif, the film allows the possibility that what "happened" is different based on the teller. But it's probably never going to be lower than 9. Also a dog that ended up in a microwave, also in keeping with the motif.