What many consider the second Teen Slasher Movie cycle (after the first such cycle, which ran between 1974 and 1984) began in 1996 with Wes Craven’s Scream. Scream reignited interest in the Slasher film, adopting a lighter, more self-referential tone while still providing genuine scares and a healthy dose of blood-letting. Craven’s Scream was the catalyst which opened the door for a series of similar films, including its own sequels.
Though Craven is often credited with having resurrected and revamped the Slasher film, the influence of Scream’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, is too often overlooked. In fact, it could be said that Craven’s single greatest contribution to the rebirth of the Slasher film-type was taking a chance on a spec script by a writer better known for a teen soap opera with overly verbose characters.
In fact, Scream—and the genesis of the second Teen Slasher film cycle as a whole—owes much to Williamson’s script, which is also true of I Know what you Did Last Summer. I’ll admit, when I rewatched the film for the purpose of writing this review, I’d actually forgotten that Williamson had written the first installments of both the Scream and Summer franchises. But once the dialogue started rolling and the plot began to unfurl, his mark became evident.
Williamson has the ability to develop character through short, tightly-crafted scenes which tell us all we need to know about the characters then moves on. These aren’t deep, complex characters, but they allow for interactions that seem realistic, at least within the onscreen relationships as they’ve been defined. The dialogue is natural and never calls attention to itself (unlike the writer’s work on Dawson’s Creek). The characters are likable or, at the very least, interesting. Even the hot-headed Barry, played by Ryan Phillippe, though quite the douchebag, is tolerable, if for no other reason than we want to see how his hot-headed douchebaggery will affect the plot.
And it’s a solid plot (based on the novel by Lois Duncan). Four friends, on the cusp of major life changes that include college and the pursuit of dream jobs, drive to a secluded beach for a final night together. Driving back, the effects of alcohol and the above-mentioned douchebaggery lead to their hitting a man. Thinking him dead, they agree to keep the accident a secret and dispose of the body. This scene alone, in which the friends/co-conspirators go through the process of carrying the body off the road and dumping it into the ocean, is studded with tense moments. Complications pile upon complication until the entire sequence begins to feel like Hitchcock-light. The moments that immediately precede and follow Barry’s diving into the water put an amused, even surprised smile on my face.
After the incident, just as the gang is about to reunite, Julie, ably played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, receives note: ‘I know what you did last summer!’
From there, Julie and her friends—along with a few innocent bystanders—are first terrorized then attacked by a mysterious figure in a rain slicker wielding a hook. The Fisherman, as he’s come to be called, is an undeniably cool looking villain. In a coastal town, such as the one in which the film is set, a man (or woman) dressed in wet gear can go entirely unnoticed, but the full-body coverage and dark silhouette are as creepy and threatening as they are contextually innocuous.
Tension comes not only from the moments leading up to the kills—which are well-executed, if not especially creative—but from the mystery surrounding the Fisherman’s identity. Julie embarks on an investigation to find and confront the killer, whether he be the man they may or may not have killed last summer, or someone related to him. The blend of typical Slasher and Scooby-style mystery became a standard feature of the second Teen Slasher film cycle, more so than the first, and it’s well-played here, again thanks to Williamson.
Unfortunately, though the screenplay here is solid, I Know What You Did Last Summer suffers from Craven’s absence. As much as Williamson’s writing was a huge factor in Scream’s success, Craven’s directorial acumen was another. I Know What You Did Last Summer offers no stand-out shots, no unforgettable sequences built upon filmmaking technique. From a directorial stand point, Summer is just adequate. Whereas I’m fine with dialogue and performances that do not draw attention to themselves, I enjoy—and even expect—the occasional directorial flourish, a camera move, a clever cut or well-constructed sequence that makes my eyebrows jump and my lips twitch. Scream had a few, but Summer has none.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is a solid film and historically important given that, within the second Teen Slasher cycle, it is to Scream what Friday the 13th was to Halloween, but it’s not as strong, not as technically assured as Craven’s film, making it undeniably worth-watching but not quite a must see.
Length: 100 min