I Know What You Did Last Summer. 1997. Directed by Jim Gillespie. Screenplay by Kevin Williamson; loosely based on the novel of the same name by Lois Duncan.
Starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Anne Heche, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Johnny Galecki, Muse Watson, & Stuart Greer.
Mandalay Entertainment/Summer Knowledge LLC.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
★★★1/2After Scream, horror fans out there seemed to only want similar movies. That’s fine, because I see stuff all the time and think “I wish there was more of this!” Problem is you have to draw the line. At a certain point we just need something different. And not every slasher, or horror in general, has to break the mould. Now and then it’s nice to just have a plain ole slasher, a simple ghost story. Whatever the case. So for Kevin Williamson, part of I Know What You Did Last Summer undoubtedly meant to show people he wasn’t intent on solely doing metafictional, self-referential horror. He also liked the slasher sub-genre that his screenplay for Scream took its jabs at, which is great! Why can’t a writer poke fun at a genre that he enjoys? Having a sense of humour about your own tastes is a mark of intelligence in my book.
For all its glaring flaws, I Know What You Did Last Summer has its fun with a loosely adapted story from the novel of the same name by Lois Duncan. It’s unfortunate that Duncan’s own daughter was murdered, she really didn’t like that they made this into a slasher, not one bit. Having all the empathy in the world for her, the book is one thing and her life is another.
Williamson’s script isn’t twisting and turning in the way we’re necessarily spooked by the reveal of the killer or anything. That’s not what this film is about. He examines the lives of four pretty, privileged, young white people who made a hideous decision not to report a murder, choosing instead to assure their promising, bright futures are not derailed. What follows is a wave of revenge, the consequences of guilt come back to punish them all. Like watching the conscience wreak havoc in horror form.The opening scenes before our flash forward a year or so set things up well. When horror has a palpable atmosphere, the story can be forgiven a few faults, even the acting. Director Jim Gillespie does great work with his debut feature, adding atmosphere that’s full of suspense and tension so quickly. From the first scene up until the flash forward, everything is dark, the mood and tone feels so ominous. Once the flash forward happens we’re plunged into the light. There’s a fascinating contrast between the dark subject matter and the sunny seaside town in which the story is set makes for an unsettling feeling, part of the film’s quietly creepy atmosphere.
Once the changeover between dark and light happens, the danger is everywhere. Constant. Around every last corner and each little turn is the potential for any various brutal death, in the name of the slasher sub-genre. We get a bit of brutality, too. Although not quite as much as you’d expect. One moment I always enjoy is how when the unknown, hook-handed killer chases down Barry (Ryan Phillippe), and we know he’s about to get killed barbarically. Only he doesn’t get killed, he’s left alive. Usually this isn’t the case for slashers unless dealing with a Final Girl situation. So that’s a nice little spot in the screenplay which works. Then, the delay of a kill amps up the tension a bit. Another shot I find effective is when Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) opens her trunk, a dead body inside covered in crabs; so fast, short, like a shot to the brain. Awesome horror moment.
One major weak link is Phillippe. Strange to me because, honestly, I usually dig him. He overplays the character, there’s no nuance at all. Surprisingly, someone I don’t often enjoy saves the acting: Ms. Love Hewitt. I’ve never really found her that interesting. The character of Julie James is one devastated by guilt of not stopping the cover-up of her friend’s crime, although no less guilty than any of her counterparts in the fateful act on that deadly summer night. She express the guilt without going into psychosis mode like Phillippe. Definitely helps to have her in the cast, as she remains the foundation of all the drama.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is decent here, as well. The sequence featuring her going to bed then waking up to a tiara on her head is sinister, totally drenched in suspense with great shots. She sees the tiara, the SOON in lipstick across her mirror. Such a beautifully executed sequence that leaves a dry lump in the throat. Gellar sells it well, going appropriately wild when need be.
This is also the gateway to more suspense, as the pace picks up speed. The movie builds steam from here to start churning on the terror. Slasher kill scenes don’t really open up much until late in the plot, which is fine. That’s a plus, as this gives time for everything else to develop. One of the best death scenes is that of Gellar: like our wait for more blood, this draws out awhile, until the Hook corners her and the killing blows are punctuated by fireworks in the sky. Amazing. Because at its base, this film is a warning to the rich, disaffected kids of America – they may not get caught by police, but the killers out for revenge in slasher pictures will find them, no matter how many summers pass. As Gellar’s Helen Shivers is stabbed bloodily to death, the Fourth of July fireworks in the sky, you can’t help but see this slasher as a deeply American movie on many levels.
There are a bunch of ways I Know What You Did Last Summer could’ve been improved. For one, that Phillippe performance needed toning down. Secondly, there needed to be more slasher gore, in my opinion. Part of me feels Williamson went a bit soft instead of going full-on slasher madness because he felt necessary to separate from Scream in any way possible.
But I don’t care. Doesn’t matter to me because there’s still a decent movie in there. A couple performances work, and the bloody bits we do get are worth the time. That July 4th scene is so good, so subtly terrifying. There’s some trashy stuff, a couple slick and flashy sequences. There are a few lessons to be learned on top of everything else. These young, privileged white boys and girls opt to try covering up what they did, not knowing the full story, and everything imaginable comes down upon them in return. I Know What You Did Last Summer is a slice of slasher cinema which aims to freak you out, simultaneously preaching to the teens who flock to see these types of movies about shady morality. Unexpectedly, the moral message works while other pieces don’t, and I dig enough of it that every Halloween this movie makes an appearance on my viewing list.