The notion of a new horror film devoted to urban legends is somewhat redundant, given that horror films routinely mine urban legends and arguably represent them. Urban Legend, a first feature directed by 26-year-old Australian Jamie Blanks, places the modern-day folktale at the center of what might otherwise be yet another Scream offshoot, perhaps trusting that the populist lure of urban legends-haven't we all heard about exploding Pop Rocks and the babysitter who gets threatening phone calls from upstairs?-will appeal to a movie audience responsive both to the familiar and the ironic.

Blanks' film plunges the viewer right into the heart of tall-tales territory via a reasonably chilling prologue involving Pendleton College student Monica (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a driver alone at night on a deserted patch of road during a heavy downpour. The quintessential urban-legend victim-headstrong but doomed-Monica sings along mightily to Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' on the car radio before suffering a total eclipse of her head courtesy of an ax-wielding stranger.

Or was it a stranger? Once Urban Legend's setting shifts to the nearby Pendleton campus, there are hints that a serial killer-maybe someone you'd least expect-could be on the loose. Soon, a practical joker named Damon (Joshua Jackson of TV's 'Dawson's Creek') is found hanging from a tree. It looks like someone with a weird sense of history-a massacre of Pendleton students took place at Stanley Hall exactly 25 years ago-and a taste for urban legends is on a rampage. 'I knew I should have gone to NYU,' one of the Pendleton students grumbles.

Not that Pendleton doesn't have its learned academics, too, especially Professor Wexler (Robert Englund, aka Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies), who, as luck would have it, teaches a popular course called 'Intro to American Folklore.' In his class, Wexler points out that urban legends are said to contain moral cautions, but his students don't take him seriously until the campus body count increases and similarities to the Stanley Hall massacre emerge. But even then, the mood is flippant. A weekend partygoer blithely dismisses a woman running wildly through the halls: 'She's doing a performance-art piece to commemorate the massacre.'

Cute and brainy Natalie (Alicia Witt), a student who witnesses one of the killings, sees additional links between the folkloric tales Wexler is invoking and the behavior of the serial killer. Meanwhile, Paul (Jared Leto of TV's 'My So-called Life'), an ambitious college journalist, seems intent on finding the murderer, as do radio phone-in host Sasha (Tara Reid) and campus guard Reese (Loretta Devine). But, in the tradition of slasher films, the killings keep on coming-and always in the guise of urban legends.

As horror movies and first directing efforts go, Urban Legend offers decent suspense and a few genuine jolts; it has a kind of loud, insistent charm, which eventually grinds down. James Chressanthis' wide-screen cinematography is attractive and assured, but Silvio Horta's screenplay scarcely breaks new ground, content instead with serving up stock characters in familiar settings. There's even a creepy-looking janitor lurking around the school corridors when you most expect him.

--Ed Kelleher