Release Date: October 17th, 1997 (US); December 12th, 1997 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller
Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr.
We probably shouldn’t be too surprised that a film called I Know What You Did Last Summer reeks of laziness. Just as someone couldn’t find the time to come up with a proper title — it ain’t bad, but it is a tagline at the end of the day — renowned screenwriter Kevin Williamson must’ve had better things to do when he should have been jotting down ideas for this particular outing. Odd too, given some of Williamson’s best work hit cinemas only a year prior. Released during the peak of slasher popularity, I Know What You Did Last Summer is an almost wholesomely generic film that seldom has something fresh to offer. Though when it occasionally does, it’s quite fun.
The day is July 4th — it always is — and a group of friends partying at the beach are celebrating the end of high school life. Fuelled by alcohol, their lively drive home in the early hours of the morning takes a violent turn when designated wheel man Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) inadvertently hits a stranger. A year later, the quartet reconvene to face their demons after Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) receives a worrying letter from an unknown threat.
Riding on the coattails of horror’s slashiest sub-genre at its peak, this may well have worked for audiences 15 years ago. For those 90s kids who were willing to manoeuvre away from their post-Fresh Prince couches and venture along to the cinema in a search for their latest scare kick, an air of fragmentary vindication likely arose. The proceeding 15 years haven’t done Jim Gillespie’s piece any favours though as these days I Know What You Did Last Summer communicates sluggishly rather than scarily.
Characters who were once amusingly familiar are now dully recognisable; here we watch incompetent cops, hysterical teens, unappreciative family members and an oddball whose home is a cabin in the woods fight it out for screen time. You could go one further and split our four leads into general types: the douche, the do-gooder, the good-looking chick and so on. The lot presented before us are hardly fleshed out at all, not figuratively anyway — when main ladies Julie and Helen reconnect after a year, the duo interact as if they’ve only been apart for the length of a toilet break. Emotion, posted missing.
It is peculiar, then, that we sort of like the characters. The high profile names involved do well with the lightweight personas laid upon them — at least the car accident at the beginning manifests as some sort of an attempt to taint our protagonists with an iffy moral shadow early on. Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar are accommodating screen presences, and both veer closer to the scream queen tag than the annoying gal stamp. In a divergence from rule, we’re essentially roused to root for a pair of leading females and the film does well to split its time between them. Although Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Helen is a pageant contestant she is also quite resourceful and not stigmatised by her materialism. On the other hand, when he is afforded something to do Ryan Phillippe is either angry or the purveyor of comical nodes. “You can’t drive for shit, you know that?” Barry exclaims seconds before his pal runs somebody over. Slick.
Perhaps Kevin Williamson is aiming for self-awareness throughout his screenplay, akin to the tone promoted in Scream the year before. There is a noticeable pronunciation in certain elements that would indicate as such; from telling ghost stories around a campfire to dumping a body in a dark lake, at night, surrounded by mist and eerie silence. But the film gets caught somewhere amid tongue-and-cheek and deadly serious. Unlike Scream, a picture that successfully manages both overriding irony and a sinister underbelly, I Know What You Did Last Summer plods along an uncertain middling route. Humorous moments are infrequent yet amplified when they enter the fray. It doesn’t help when action lulls are supported by dialogue that is often erroneously funny. (“Maybe he wanted to die?”)
And it wouldn’t be a nineties slasher flick without splurges of stupidity either. Conversations are crummy but these are nothing compared to the baffling silliness on display, an unnatural lunacy that regularly exudes the horror norm. Some instances we are forced to forgive for the sake of sanity, such as the arrival of an ominous note on the exact same day Julie returns home, or that her mate just happens to work locally and not be in New York during Julie’s time of need. Other scenes are notable for their unavoidable absurdity: at one point Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character enters her bedroom and dozes off whilst the baddie hides in the cupboard, refraining from killing her. Guess someone behind the scenes managed to inform the villain just in time that there’s another thirty minutes to go.
Slasher outings aren’t really meant to be scary, not exclusively. The aim is to shock, to rattle the audience. Unfortunately this does nothing more than encourage a few winces. Admittedly, our persistence is somewhat rewarded with a couple of good ones. The first kill, for example, is impactful without being overly gory. From here Williamson’s screenplay hints profusely at who the killer is and does so effectively. We foresee a twist coming, we think we know the culprit. Ultimately, the conclusion flatters to deceive but the ponderous build up is admirable and an insight into what could have been.
I Know What You Did Last Summer clumsily loses touch with its tone. The piece cajoles between hokey and ominous, and the end result is rather fluffy. Sure, it is sort of fun if you are looking to suspend you brain for over an hour and a half. But it’s certainly not anything to scream about. And it’s certainly not Scream.
Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures