Jul 28, 2014


Co-writer/co-director Joshua Zeman took an interesting approach with his previous documentary, Cropsey. What is ultimately a true-crime examination of a series of child murderers that occurred in Staten Island, New York, actually began with a brief rumination on the idea of urban legends and how real-life monsters become mythical ones. This idea of investigating urban legends must've sat well with him, for he has returned with Killer Legends, a documentary that examines the origins of four of the most infamous urban legends in popular culture. Zeman posits that every urban legend is based on "some sort of truth," and our desire to believe these legends allows us to "pull back the curtain" on what scares us most: reality. This approach is taken as each popular legend is recounted and its real-life inspirations are analyzed.  

I have always been incredibly intrigued by urban legends – their origins, their power to spread from person to person like something contagious, as well as the stories themselves. I recall, when having watched the pretty terrible Urban Legend in my youth, wishing that the fancy leather-bound book one character looks through in the film, called simply "Urban Legends," both existed and sat on my shelf. There was something that seemed especially dangerous about those particular tales – they weren't just ghost or murder stories. They achieved a real power to them because many people who told them honestly believed they had happened to someone close to them. 

Though that fancy schmancy book of urban legends filled with classy pencil-sketch drawings may never exist, Killer Legends is a phenomenal substitute. Well realized and very well executed, urban legends of the "hook man," the "candy man," the "murdered babysitter," and motherfuckin' "killer clowns" are each explored as in-depth as the doc's running time would allow. Though certain legends have more time dedicated to them than others, the filmmakers deserve accolades for having put such effort into each investigation. We hear so often growing up, and see in films when one character tells a camp-fire story, some of which are featured in Killer Legends, only for the punchline to be a cheesy fake scare punctuated with proclamations that the storyteller's yarn never happened - that it was the stuff of fiction.

Not true. And that actually kind of surprised me. For so long we've been reassured by our parents and teachers that such stories we exchanged on the playground never happened, and we shouldn't worry. I suppose it was "okay" for them to lie to us at that age, in favor of letting us have a few more years' worth of peaceful nights before we found out that, yeah, this shit actually happened, and happens, and will happen.

The doc is propelled by onscreen hosts Zeman and Rachel Miller, but interviews with specialists, historians, and the real people who were local to the various crimes being examined also share their insights, some of them more surprising than others. Also bolstering the theme of life's infatuation with the dark are the assembly of movie clips from such titles as Halloween, Candyman, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and oh yeah, Stephen King's IT.

Killer Legends has a lot to offer, and to many kinds of viewers. Students of true crime, folklore, psychology, and the casual horror fan – the doc will ably provide a wealth of entertainment, information, and at times even poignancy, depending on what you want to get from it. I'd love for Joshua Zeman to consider this documentary as the first in a series in which he examines handfuls of urban legends at a time. This kind of attempt has been done before, in cheesy shows like "Fact of Fiction" or the recent series "Urban Legends," but not with this kind of serious, investigative, or philosophical approach.

It's now available on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures.

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