I Know What You Did Last Summer

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Jim Gillespie

REVIEWED: 11-03-97

It would be entirely possible to make a compelling drama about four teenagers who accidentally run over a pedestrian and then hide the body. One could even imagine the gripping psychological suspense if, say, one year later the teens began receiving mysterious letters that implied someone knew their secret. But if that shadowy stranger were wearing a fisherman's slicker and brandishing a giant hook? Well, then you'd have your basic slasher flick--and you'd have lost all your drama and most of your suspense.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is a retro horror film, directed by Jim Gillespie and written by hot scribe Kevin Williamson, best known for his work on last year's surprise hit Scream. Williamson's shtick thus far has been to dress up old clichés in hip, ironic clothes. As much as critics and cineastes may have wanted to like Scream for its self-aware riffs on the slasher genre, the truth of the matter is that those riffs got repetitive quickly, and Scream's real appeal was its throwback shocks and gratuitous gore. It wasn't just about scary movies; it was a scary movie.

The same is true of Summer. Early in the film, our four protagonists (played by appealing young actors Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Ryan Phillippe) sit around a campfire and relate different versions of the old "escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand" urban legend. Late in the film, the police dredge the ocean for a body and pull up only a disembodied hand clutching a silver fishhook. In between these bits of pop-culture horseplay, the teens skulk around for clues to the identity of their tormentor and try to avoid being impaled.

There are some truly terrifying scenes in I Know What You Did Last Summer. One involves Anne Heche, who creeps around her ramshackle house in the country, mourning her dead brother and unnerving Hewitt and Gellar (who may be responsible for the brother's death). Another well-conceived set piece has a character being hacked to death in an alley while a parade marches down the street barely 20 feet away. This movie can be faulted for not properly exploring the psyches of the accidental killers, but never let it be said that it doesn't shock the audience.

The question, of course, is whether the shocks are worth it. My colleagues Donna Bowman and Jim Ridley have had a series of spirited debates about the merits of Scream and the slasher genre as a whole--Bowman regards the films with affection, while Ridley finds them cheap and misanthropic. For my part, I thought Scream was a kick, mainly because the characters were so cartoonish that their gruesome ends didn't bother me.

Generally, though, I've been uncomfortable defending slasher flicks ever since a college paper review of Nightmare on Elm Street 6 garnered a rebuke from an editor who vividly remembered a female student who was butchered in her dorm room. Although I think it's a dead end to connect screen violence and real violence--because the relationship is so hard to pin down--there comes a point when audience members should understand that they are watching ritual murder in the name of entertainment. I can't deny that I was frightened by I Know What You Did Last Summer. Nor can I deny that it left me feeling empty and queasy.

Frankly, horror is a depressing, nihilistic genre. After a Saturday double-feature of The Devil's Advocate and I Know What You Did Last Summer, I've been down in the dumps until, well, I started working on this review. If there must be a slasher revival, I suppose it's better that smart writers like Williamson are leading the way. I wish the filmmakers and the fans the best of luck, and I trust they can carry on without me.

--Noel Murray

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I Know What You Did Last Summer
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