I Know What You Did Last Summer
Screenplay : Kevin Williamson (based on the novel by Lois Duncan)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Jennifer Love Hewitt (Julie James), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Helen Shivers), Ryan Phillippe (Barry Cox), Freddie Prinze Jr. (Ray Bronson), Muse Watson (Benjamin Willis), Bridgette Wilson (Elsa Shivers), Anne Heche (Missy Egan), Johnny Galecki (Max), Stuart Greer (Officer)
"I Know What You Did Last Summer" is a slasher movie that doesn't need the slasher. Hoping to cash in on the runaway success of last year's horror satire "Scream," "I Know What You Did" takes what could have been an interesting morality tale and almost flubs up it completely with a mostly unfrightening killer who slices and dices his victims with a large hook.
The story takes place in a small, North Carolina fishing town. A group of four high school friends, Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), her boyfriend Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and her boyfriend Barry (Ryan Phillippe) are driving down a winding road after a late night of drinking and carousing on the beach in celebration of their graduation. Things go horrible wrong with they hit something in the road that turns out to be a somebody.
At first they are shocked and confused, but as they begin to calm down, the severity of the situation sinks in. "Manslaughter," is all they can think as they look at the crumpled body on the side of the road, his face masked with blood. Ray was driving Barry's BMW, and although he was sober, he worries that the police won't believe him. Julie presses for them to call the authorities, but the others aren't so sure. After all, no one else saw it happen. If they move quickly, they can dump the body in the ocean, and pretend it never happened.
Which is exactly what they do, but pretending it never happened is not so easy. The next year they go to different schools, and the pressures from their horrible secret causes the two couples to break up, and all of them to fail miserably at the very things -- school, social activities, relationships -- that they thought they could protect by hiding the accident. The situation goes over the edge when Julie comes home the next summer, and there is a letter waiting for her with the simple statement: I know what you did last summer.
They all get back together and try to figure out who could know. Another teenager named Max (Johnny Galecki), with whom Barry had an antagonistic relationship, drove by after the accident. Maybe he knows. Or, maybe the man they hit wasn't actually dead. Or maybe it was some of his relatives or friends, seeking revenge.
At this point, about forty minutes into the movie, screenwriter Kevin Williamson (who also penned the two "Scream" films) has set up an interesting scenario. There is the morality aspect of the film -- the fact that these teens killed someone and covered it up, and now it's eating them alive inside. And there's also a well-founded mystery: who sent the note? Unfortunately, the script then introduces the killer -- dressed in a rain slicker and hat obscuring his face -- who begins stalking them with hook in hand. From here, first-time director Jim Gillespie takes two directions at once: he builds an effective mystery thriller by following the teens as they try to determine who sent the note, and he develops a by-the-numbers slasher flick.
Williamson's characters are all generic types, but they're still believable as people and they react realistically according to the situations. Julie, who is the most reserved of the group, worries the most; Barry, who is the natural leader because of his physical strength and abrasive personality, wants to take immediate action; Helen, a beauty queen who has always been something of a follower, just wants to go along with whatever Barry says; and Ray, the one who was driving when the accident occurred, is somewhat removed and suspicious.
The film does contain some effective scenes, including a creepy sequence that takes place in a dark department store, and a scene where Helen is trying to spot the killer while riding a float in a parade, which feels like something Hitchcock might have done. The film plays by the rules of the slasher genre (subjective camera tracking, false alarms, nubile teens in tight shirts being chased by a killer who always walks, never runs), but at the same time, it breaks many of them (keeps the killer's identity secret, specifically targets victims for plot reasons, and shows a great deal of restraint in the gore).
"I Know What You Did Last Summer" is head and shoulders above earlier "dead teenager movies" (as Robert Ebert liked to call them) such as "Friday the 13th" (1980) and "Prom Night" (1981). But it still falls short of the sheer technical brilliance of the original "Halloween" (1978) or the sly satire of "Scream" (1996). It does include a few in-jokes and references to familiar urban legends and horror movies (including a great one aimed at "Silence of the Lambs"), but none of them create the same humorous ring of Williamson's other films.
Unfortunately, "I Know What You Did" really doesn't know what it wants to do, and that is its biggest flaw.
©1998 James Kendrick