Jennifer Love Hewitt
Sarah Michelle Gellar
Freddie Prinze Jr.
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
evin Williamson, the creator of Dawson's Creek (1998-2003), helped reinvigorate the slasher movie. In June, 1995, he put a screenplay for a satirical horror movie he had newly written, then-called Scary Movie, up for sale. Eventually, it would serve as the basis for Scream, a neo-slasher movie that would be released at the end of 1996. A critical and commercial hit, Scream was dubbed a landmark. Particularly acclaimed
was the way its characters pointedly referenced and made fun of horror-movie conventions (“Never say ‘I’ll be right back!,'” a dweebish character exclaimed at one point), and the way it derailed old-hat genre platitudes largely through its self-referential humor.
The second Scream movie, called Scream 2, was also written by Williamson and was comparatively exalted. But it wouldn’t be long before the freshness for which Williamson was admired would stale. Though he’d written the screenplay for it years before — around the time he penned Scream, to be exact — the first Williamson-scribed feature put out after Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), was a turnaround of what had then been his specialty: acerbic comedic horror.
Using a 1973 Lois Duncan novel as its foundation, the movie bore a similarly tilted premise, and featured a correspondingly young ensemble. But the smart-alecky humor that made the first two features comprising the Scream franchise so inexhaustibly great was missing. I Know What You Did Last Summer, despite being a perfectly fine dime-store thrill, markedly panders to the slasher-film formula its forebears so diligently stayed away from.
The film begins on the Fourth of July, in sweltering Southport, North Carolina, in 1996. It’s a special day not just for the country but also for Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a blonde high-school senior who, as the film opens, has taken the crown at a beauty pageant. Helen, superficial and edgeless, earnestly prattles on stage about how she views her new honorific as a sign that she should serve her country through art.
Meanwhile, in the balcony section, her temperamental alcoholic boyfriend Barry (Ryan Phillippe) and her best friends, the moral Julie and the reserved Ray (Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze, Jr.), wait out the spectacle while planning what they’re going to do to celebrate United States independence. Barry luckily gets out a misogynistic heckle or two before the show ends.
What should follow should be mundane: have a campfire at the beach, down a few drinks, perhaps go to a fireworks show, head home. But the evening will instead resemble a Clive Barker story or an urban legend a friend told you about a few days ago. The beachside campfire-and-drinks thing happens — and the friends, because foreshadowing is important here, make a point to discuss the legend of a ghost fisherman who kills people with a hook — but the rest of the night isn’t so breezy. On the way back home, the friends accidentally hit and seemingly kill a passerby. Fearing that the mishap could curtail their chances of future success, they decide to dump the body in the ocean and pretend like it never happened.
I Know What You Did Last Summer then jumps a year ahead. Julie is coming home from college, but clearly, given her pinguid hair and baggy eyes, the guilt has taken a toll on her. (“You look terrible!” her mother chirps upon her return.) Everyone else has stayed in town. Helen’s decision to try out acting in New York petered out; Ray and Barry have taken to blue-collar work. Little will improve by the end of the film. Just after arriving home, Julie receives an ominous letter. (Or, I guess, message.) “I know what you did last summer!” it reads. Unfortunately, the writer isn't referring to a retail job or napping.
What ensues is a standard-fare slasher movie. A masked maniac — this time beset with a hook (like in the urban legend!) — embarks on a murderous rampage. Though their primary targets are the guileless hitting-and-running teens, they make sure to pick off ancillary characters, too. It is strongly suggested that the person under the shiny trench-coat and floppy hat is the man the group killed back in 1996, but you can never be too sure.
The movie is diverting enough, but it's more so asinine and familiar. That it has been written by Williamson — someone we know is well-aware of how tiresome the clichés I Know What You Did Last Summer employs are — furthers ideas of missed opportunity. The premise is pretty clever, actualizing a seemingly fantastical question. What if your guilt was weighing down on you so much that it became a person and tried to kill you? But Williamson saps it of any real fun.
Slasher proponents who like making games out of recognizing certain banalities might get a kick out of the film; I know I did. Newer generations might have even more fun deducing which scenes in the movie were lampooned three years later in Scary Movie. But that’s the thing about I Know What You Did Last Summer: it’s most enjoyable to scrutinize what it does badly and what about it is ripe for satire — things that can only get you so far in horror. C