Jennifer Love Hewitt - Julie James
Sarah Michelle Gellar - Helen Shivers
Ryan Phillippe - Barry William Cox
Freddie Prinze, Jr. - Ray Bronson
Bridgette Wilson - Elsa Shivers
Anne Heche - Missy Egan
Johnny Galecki - Max Neurick
Muse Wilson - Ben Willis
Genre - Horror/Slasher
Running Time - 101 Minutes
Since this is my 600th review and all - yay me! - I honestly had trouble deciding what to review for such an occasion. At one point, I wanted to review 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ. Then, I switched over to 1968's ROSEMARY'S BABY. Then I was thinking of starting my journey to watch every zombie movie ever made by doing a review for 1932's WHITE ZOMBIE. I seriously had no idea what I wanted to review.
Then, I was going through some VHS tapes and saw it - a film so perfectly timed for this occasion. Summer has just started. The Fourth of July is headed our way soon. And it was a horror film from the late 1990s - when the genre had a rebirth due to 1996's SCREAM. In fact, while SCREAM reinvigorated the slasher sub-genre, I believe the film I'm reviewing for you cemented that one-two punch the genre needed to grab teen audiences and fans looking for mainstream horror. And that film is 1997's I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER - a film I hadn't watched since the early 2000s, yet remembered almost every detail about it all these years later.
Now don't get me wrong - I never found I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER to be the greatest horror film ever. In fact, it has many plot holes and follows the slasher film manual to a tee, although turning the sub-genre on its head and calling everyone out on it was what made the genre so popular again with SCREAM. Critics weren't big fans, yet horror fans ate it up and made the film a success. Hell, I watched it mainly for Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who at the time were coming into their own as two of the biggest teen stars. While I always preferred SCREAM, and even URBAN LEGEND to an extent, I still enjoyed I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER for what it was - an 80s slasher polished with 90s nu-ness. And even after 16 years have passed, I still find a lot to like about this film - even if it isn't anywhere close to horror perfection.
On a very memorable Fourth of July, four high school seniors decide to have fun before moving on with their separate lives as they prepare for college. The beautiful Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has won a beauty pageant and is now her town's beauty queen. Helen's boyfriend Barry (Ryan Phillippe), her best friend Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), and Julie's boyfriend Ray (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) celebrate her victory by drinking and partying. After a detour at the beach, the crew decide to drive and enjoy their happy night.
Unfortunately as they drive, the car hits something huge. As they investigate the damage, they discover a bruised and bloody person on the road. Julie and Helen suggest calling the police, but Barry and Ray refuse, afraid that they'll go to jail for manslaughter. The guys decide that they should deal with the body themselves, dumping it into the ocean. The girls reluctantly agree, helping Barry and Ray dispose of the body.
A year passes and all four friends are all emotional messes due to the events of the hit-and-fun. After returning home from college, Julie receives a note, stating that "I know what you did last summer." Julie shows it to her estranged friends, wondering if someone had seen what they had done. And if that's the case, they need to find out who is the messenger before he/she takes them out one-by-one.
Surprisingly, I can't believe how well I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER has dated since 1997. Sure the 90s fashions and music date the film, but the story and the mystery are still pretty effective even today. I still don't think the film is great horror cinema or anything, but it's an enjoyable and breezy 101 minutes that most modern horror can't really say. It created four stars in Hewitt, Gellar, Prinze Jr., and Phillippe, as well as give cred to screenwriter Kevin Williamson - who had an impressive last half of the 1990s with SCREAM, Dawson's Creek, TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, SCREAM 2, THE FACULTY, and this film.
The screenplay for I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER is based on a novel by Lois Duncan, pretty much using the same plot and main characters. Williamson, instead of following the self awareness that he used in SCREAM, decides to play it pretty straight with this film's script. While there are references to other horror films, mainly SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the story pretty much plays out seriously. A lot of people criticized this at the time [maybe they still do now] about why going back to the way things were when making fun of these cliche horror conventions is what brought the mainstream back to begin with. But I think that's what makes IKWYDLS stand apart from SCREAM. And while SCREAM deserves the credit for bringing the masses back to horror in 1996, I don't think the genre would have been seen as a true cash cow until the success of IKWYDLS. And I think the story it's telling has a lot to do with that same success.
Now is the screenplay perfect? Not in the least. It definitely has its issues and I'll get to them shortly. But what I like about this film is how well Williamson writes for younger characters. There's something genuine in the way these characters speak, and the way they behave with each other. They're focused on superficial crap like fame, fortune, and sex. They tell each other stories and urban legends that may, or may not, be true. When they're under pressure, they lash out without really thinking logically about the situation.
In fact, the best part is how Williamson actually lets us in on how this "murder" has affected every one of them. They all look like former shells of themselves, barely able to look each other in the eye and hold on to what make them all so close in the first place. It's a realistic character progression that we don't really see in slasher films. These characters are haunted, in total denial about what they've done in order to maintain some semblance of a life. And since these characters are fairly one-dimensional stereotypes, this added layer does allow some depth to shine through - depth one wouldn't expect out of a slasher film. I think that's why many people still enjoy this film. I do wish the film focused more on this aspect of the story, since it is the most interesting part about it.
To be honest with you, the "whodunit" part of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER is the weakest part of the screenplay. I enjoy mysteries and detective work. But the way IKWYDLS executes this portion is extremely flawed and pretty ridiculous. All the red herrings and the potential suspects feel very forced. Ooh, she's squinting her eyes! Oh no, he's frowning at them! How subtle! The stuff with the Egan family is an interesting addition, but I felt these scenes ran too long. That's probably due to the fact that these scenes are nothing but exposition to sustain said mystery. These scenes, or these red herrings, aren't bad. They just feel kind of unnecessary. I mean, we all know these random characters are NOT the killer. Even a newbie could figure that one out. So why bother really? Cut down ten to fifteen minutes of runtime and you'd have a much tighter script.
It doesn't help that the actual identity of the killer doesn't really make his true appearance until the final twenty minutes. Yeah, it's supposed to be mysterious. But you could at least present this person before the actual reveal for it to mean something. That way the climax could resonate more. Instead, it just feels like this person popped up at the most convenient time so the film can finally end. Even back in 1997, I thought how they executed the identity of the killer to be pretty weak. This is something we should see coming. This is something the film should be building towards. But it's a twist that exists for the sake of having a twist. The twist in I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER was obvious, but at least it was there in your face the entire time to figure out. The reveal just feels random to me.
And about this killer - what is his/her deal here? Cutting people's hair? Running down people but not killing them? Sending notes with great penmanship? For a person who almost got killed via vehicular homicide, he/she sure enjoys playing with people instead of just killing them. I oddly find it fun how the killer tortures his/her victims. But I still don't understand why he/she needed to kill side characters that had no knowledge of the event. Nor do I understand how he/she managed to stuff a corpse covered in crabs inside Julie's car trunk, only to clean it out spic and span in about a minute. I can suspend my disbelief with films like IKWYDLS, but that's disbelief overload. While I enjoy the visual of that, I still can't wrap my head about that implausibility. Still, the screenplay isn't terrible, as it probably does more things right than it does wrong.
Even though this is a slasher film, the gore here is very tame. It's kind of a let down really. The guy getting hit by a car is pretty brutal. And then a side character gets a hook under the chin in a pretty violent moment. But after that, it's pretty PG-13 in terms of horror violence. You'd think the deaths for the main characters would be more brutal and gruesome for audiences to truly be affected by these moments. But nope. It's actually kind of backwards. I know IKWYDLS isn't that type of film [the 90s were pretty tame compared to the 80s when it came to slashers], but a little more blood wouldn't have hurt.
The direction by Jim Gillespie is probably the film's highlight. The film's picture looks great. I love the use of overhead shots. There's some nice style in terms of angles, lighting, and composition of shots. There's also some nice tension and suspense in this film. Probably the best scene in the film is the chase scene involving Sarah Michelle Gellar and the killer. It's usually the scene I remember whenever the film is brought up. It follows the slasher conventions to a tee, yet it's still effective due to the actors involved and the way it's executed. I also love the scene involving Ryan Phillippe on the balcony as well, mainly due to the light and shadows that play inside that moment. Gillespie, who would later direct 2005's underrated horror film VENOM, really gives the film a great polish and is definitely one of the better directed nu-slashers out there.
The acting in the film gets some criticism, but I don't find it that bad honestly. Will it win major critic awards? Probably not. But all the actors convey the story well and you care about their characters, as shallow as they may be. Jennifer Love Hewitt was probably the bigger star here at the time, as she was on FOX's Party of Five. She looks great in a tank top and manages to give a sweet performance that displays a lot of vulnerability, confusion, yet a quiet strength that makes her a memorable Final Girl of the 1990s. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who had just started to appear on WB's Buffy The Vampire Slayer [one of my favorite television shows ever], also does well as Helen. She's more of the superficial character, but Gellar gives the role some depth that probably wasn't in the script. She also looks great in a tank top.
The men aren't as good as the ladies, but they aren't terrible. Ryan Phillippe has the angry jerk of the group down to a tee. He's the kind of guy you know will get killed really early in the film because he's such a douche. Yet Phillippe does a great job playing him. Freddie Prinze, Jr. is probably the weakest actor in the film with his "aw shucks" delivery. But I've seen worse actors than him. Bridgette Wilson plays a cold bitch for a bit and does it well. And Anne Heche is probably the best actor as Missy Egan, the sister of the suspected hit-by-car victim. She had the backwoods role down pat, really giving a convincing performance even if it was pretty short. While SCREAM had great actors, IKWYDLS set the trend to cast popular television actors in one horror film that would last for years to come. And this film is still one of the better ones within that trend.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED LAST SUMMER
- Helen said that through art, she will serve her country. I knew watching porn made me more patriotic.
- Julie continued to reject Max's romantic advances. I guess his Big Bang Theory is much smaller than Julie would like.
- Max looked down on Ray. The film wants you to think it's about their different class and social statuses. But it's really because Max had watched WING COMMANDER and that disgust of failure hasn't left yet.
- Max got a hook to the chin, killing him. I knew that Darlene Conner would grow up to be a real bitch.
- Barry was almost run over by his own car, which was stolen and driven by the killer. Or more likely, Resse Witherspoon and her current drunk husband just went joyriding and accidentally hurt Barry. Talk about some CRUEL INTENTIONS.
- Helen got her hair cut while she was sleeping. Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake can be a real cut up sometimes.
- Missy Egan enjoys slicing and dicing fish. No wonder Ellen DeGeneres dated her for a while...
- An idiot cop got hooked and killed by the killer. For a fisherman, the killer sure knows how to skewer a pig.
- The fisherman slashed Elsa's throat. Uh...fatality?
- The fisherman got his/her revenge on Helen. I guess he's the Vampire Slayer...Slayer.
- The fisherman seemed mainly focused on killing Julie. She must have refused him/her a "happy ending" as a member of The Client List.
THE FINAL HOWL
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER is one of the better nu-slasher films of the 1990s. It holds up surprisingly well. The direction by Jim Gillespie is solid. The acting isn't too bad. And the story, while cliche, works well enough to be memorable. I wish there were better death scenes, a stronger execution of the mystery, and more of a focus on the characters' downhill spiral after the hit-and-run that sets up the film. But IKWYDLS does more right than it does wrong. I wish I could say the same about the two sequels...