I Know What You Did Last Summer

The dark side of the horror genre is that when a horror movie crosses over and makes big money — The Exorcist, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street — a wave of inferior rip-offs is never far behind. Well, once again, studio execs have sat up and taken notice: “Hey! Scream made $100 million! Let’s make a slasher movie!” The first one out of the box, I Know What You Did Last Summer, is particularly disappointing because it was written by Kevin Williamson, who scripted Scream, and who, I thought, was much smarter than this. Scream was a clever slasher-film parody that played by the rules of the subgenre while affectionately ribbing those same rules. Last Summer just plays by the rules — boringly, predictably so.

The film is based on Lois Duncan’s dated, poorly written young-adult novel from 1974 (sample dialogue: “Of all the dumb tricks! The guy must be off his nut”). Williamson has altered the plot while keeping the basic premise. Four high-school stereotypes — beauty queen Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), straight-A student Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), jock Barry (Ryan Phillippe), and working-class outsider Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) — are out driving when they run over a shadowy figure. The kids panic and dump the body into the nearby ocean, making a pact never to talk about the incident. Then, one year later, Julie gets a mysterious note that reads — well, check the title.

At this point, Last Summer turns into a depressingly routine slasher film. A figure called the Fisherman, dressed in a black slicker and wielding a hook, goes around terrorizing the kids. Does he want to scare a confession out of them, or does he just want to kill them? The latter, I’m afraid. But while we wait, Williamson tosses in many red herrings — who just turn out to be Fisherman fodder. The big question on the kids’ minds, and on ours, is: Who’s doing this and why? The final explanation is disastrously anti-climactic, especially coming from the writer who threw us a few diabolical twists and curves in Scream.

Director Jim Gillespie is no Wes Craven. He doesn’t know how to use the wide screen (it’s a waste of Panavision), and he gets no help from his actors. Phillippe and Prinze lack the quirkiness of the horror-obsessed geeks in Scream; they’re generic Fox-TV hunks. Gellar, the vibrant star of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is bland here; she’s too smart and likable to be credible as the snotty, shallow Helen. (Charisma Carpenter, who plays the self-absorbed Cordelia on Buffy, would have been more like it. Gellar was originally up for the role of Cordelia, and here she demonstrates how wrong she would’ve been for the part.) Hewitt, of Party of Five, fares better with the brooding, guilt-stricken Julie, but she’s too obviously being groomed as the next Neve Campbell. Only Anne Heche, stealing her two scenes as a lonely backwoods woman, makes an impression.

Williamson is a native of the North Carolina fishing community, where the movie is set. There are a few atmospheric scenes and touches of local color, but even though the film was shot on location, the place feels like the same suburban wherever I’ve seen in a hundred slasher movies. Despite the open ending and Columbia’s hunger for a franchise, I doubt that the Fisherman will catch on as an enduring icon of fear to match Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason, or even Scream‘s Munch-faced killer. The movie could have been a small paranoid classic, a smart teen rendition of Hitchcock, set in a specific locale with living, breathing people we could care about. Instead, it’s the kind of anemic gore-fest that killed the genre fifteen years ago. Kevin Williamson, what were you thinking?

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