Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Rated R for strong horror violence and language

Score: 3 out of 5

I Know What You Did Last Summer is one of the first and most commonly remembered of the Scream ripoffs, even boasting the involvement of Scream's writer, Kevin Williamson. Nearly twenty years later, the film's title has been borrowed by, of all things, a pop song from Shawn Mendes and whats-her-face from Fifth Harmony (her name's Camila Cabello, apparently), illustrating that it's continued to hold up in some form. And if I do say so myself, it's probably one of the better ones, but considering the competition, that may be damning it with faint praise. The kills are passable, but unspectacular and pretty tame for an R-rated film, indicating how this was pretty clearly made for and marketed towards teenagers after Hollywood saw how much they loved Scream. Most of the acting is below par. It's ridiculous, melodramatic, and over-the-top ("What are you waiting for, huh? What are you waiting for?"), yet possesses little of the self-awareness and sense of humor about itself that made Scream a classic. The scenarios I was coming up with in my head concerning what was happening were often more chilling than the answers the film ultimately provided. And I enjoyed it anyway, thanks to it delivering where it mattered: with the frights. It's the grunge-era equivalent of Prom Night or Terror Train, objectively not a great movie yet still possessing some standout moments as well as a certain charm that's deeply rooted in the time in which it was made. A slickly-produced, unintentionally campy '90s slasher was what I expected and wanted, and that was precisely what I got.

Our protagonists are four friends, the good girl heroine Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), her boyfriend Ray (Freddy Prinze, Jr.), her pageant queen best friend Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and Helen's football hero boyfriend Barry (Ryan Phillippe), who have just graduated high school in the coastal fishing town of Southport, North Carolina and are celebrating the Fourth of July together while looking forward to the future. After spending the night on the beach partying, drinking, and having sex (all the mortal sins of a slasher movie, basically), they accidentally run over and kill a man on the drive home. Fearing for their futures if they get hit with manslaughter and DUI charges, they decide to dump the body in the ocean and never speak of what had happened again. Fast forward one year, and Julie is returning home after the end of her freshman year of college, still traumatized by the incident, while Barry is now a college football star, Ray is working at the docks, and Helen is working at her sister Elsa's (Bridgette Wilson) boutique, her dreams of a modeling career in New York having fizzled out. As the anniversary of the incident approaches, Julie receives a mysterious letter in the mail with the message "I know what you did last summer". When the other three receive similar threatening messages, they suspect that somebody out there is trying to blackmail them... and when people start dying at the hands of somebody wearing a fisherman's slicker and wielding a giant meat hook, they realize that whoever it is has far worse on their mind. But who is it? Is the killer Missy (Anne Heche), the white-trash sister of the person they killed that night? Is it Max (Johnny Galecki), a former classmate who ran into them shortly after the incident and may or may not have seen what happened? Did the bitchy Elsa find out about her sister Helen's misadventure and decide to punish her and her friends? Has one of them snapped and gone to extreme lengths to keep their secret? Or is the man they ran down back from the dead and out for revenge?

Ultimately, the plot, based very loosely on a Lois Duncan novel (with which it shares only the title, the characters' names, and the inciting incident), is pretty convoluted, often detracting from the film as our protagonists spend more time trying to find out about the dude they ran over than about the fact that somebody's trying to kill them. The film devotes a ton of undue importance to the plot, but nothing really comes of it, the killer turning out to be a random person whose existence was only revealed about two-thirds of the way into the film. This is the Kevin Williamson who wrote Dawson's Creek and Teaching Mrs. Tingle more than the one who wrote Scream and even The Faculty, the characters here being notably less interesting and, by extension, failing to get me to care about them. He doesn't get all the blame, though, because a huge chunk of it has to go to the cast. Of the four leads, only Sarah Michelle Gellar really comes out of this with her pride intact; sure, she's basically playing a variant on Buffy Summers here, but any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows that that's well within her wheelhouse. The main female lead, Jennifer Love Hewitt, is drop-dead gorgeous, but wow is her acting terrible. Neve Campbell (her Party of Five co-star, incidentally) she ain't, no matter how hard she tries otherwise. I was having flashbacks to Rooney Mara in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, with the only things giving Hewitt a leg-up in that department being her charisma (read: her ample, prominently-displayed cleavage) and the fact that, instead of underacting, she overacts and at least gives a cheesily-bad performance. The same can't be said of the male leads, Ryan Phillippe and Freddy Prinze, Jr., who are just a couple of steps above wooden. It was clear that everybody was cast for their looks, not their acting ability. Between them and the writing, with the exception of Helen, I couldn't be bothered to care about the characters or the driving story.

It's far more interesting when it's being a slasher flick as opposed to a soap opera, with the violence handled better than the characters. While the payoffs are pretty dry and run-of-the-mill as far as these films go, the setups definitely aren't, with the scenes where the killer chases his victims all having a palatable sense of tension and urgency. This is a thrill ride, not a slow-burn chiller, and I was definitely thrilled. Helen's chase was the standout (Gellar definitely puts up a better fight than she did in Scream 2), but the film ended on a high note too with its second-best scene, the climax at the dock, and the other scenes didn't disappoint either. Even when the film was cutting away from the bloodshed, it implied enough to make the killer feel like a real threat, with his meathook and trenchcoat adding to his menace. The directing by Jim Gillespie was what boosted this film enough for me to enjoy it unironically, producing enough genuine scares to get me invested where the characters and the writing failed. It pretty much hits all the cliches of the slasher genre and ironically does pretty much everything that Scream mocked just a year prior, but it does it well, and in the end, you can't complain about comfort food not being gourmet.

The Bottom Line:

At least half of my enjoyment of this film was on a so-bad-it's-good level, but it has enough genuine moments for me to enjoy it straight-up. It's a midnight movie, but it's a pretty good one.

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