Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 10 October 2010
Source Sony DVD
The 90s Slasher Revival
Categories 31 Days of Horror VII
For much of the nineties, the horror genre felt exhausted. Save for the occasional glimmer of hope (such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994) the slasher boom of the eighties had largely sputtered into cultural irrelevance, dwindling profits, and some really terrible movies. But then came 1996’s Scream, a sleeper hit that saw screenwriter Kevin Williamson testing out a new strategy: creating a teen slasher movie about the teens who grew up with slasher movies in their VCRs. The film’s success spurred studios to start churning out more youth-skewing flicks in general, and more youth-skewering horror flicks in particular, many of them aping Scream’s metamovie bent, and a number of them flowing from Williamson’s own pen. Now, with nearly fifteen years separating us from Scream (and with the belated Scream 4 scheduled to open next year), it’s worth looking back at what nineties slasher movies said about us then, and what they have to say to us now. Every Sunday for the next four weeks, look for a new review of a film from the fleeting, achingly self-aware days of the nineties slasher revival.
Aside from Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer is the best known of the nineties slasher films, its notoriety owing, at least in part, to its gloriously overlong title, a title that sticks on the brain. Like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer exemplified everything that made the renewed appeal of horror flicks such a boon to movie studios at the time. It was cheaply produced, did well at the theater, and held the promise of an impressively lucrative afterlife on cable and home video. It also gave young TV stars a chance to be young movie stars and relative unknowns to become teen idols. Scream may have been just the kick in the pants that the horror genre needed, but I Know What You Did Last Summer was an indication that the former was no fluke. (Scream 2 trailed I Know What You Did Last Summer by only a few months, and the following year saw the high profile releases of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Halloween H20, and even Bride of Chucky, plus teen horror/sci-fi fusions like Disturbing Behavior and The Faculty.)
I Know What You Did Last Summer was Scream’s sister slasher in other ways too: the films share a screenwriter in latter day Dawson’s Creek and Vampire Diaries scribe Kevin Williamson, whose verbose teenage characters spin phrases like “immature adolescent decadence” in casual conversation, and as with Scream, there’s a whodunit mystery driving the plot. Hell, the films even shared strikingly similar artwork in the VHS era—black video boxes with portraits of the good-looking young cast members wearing serious facial expressions quickly became the de rigueur packaging for nineties horror flicks.
But I Know doesn’t try to play Scream’s game of overtly taking itself, and its genre, apart. Save for a throwaway reference to Silence of the Lambs, the characters don’t talk like hyperactive video store clerks. Instead of trying to rewrite the film that made his name, Williamson frames I Know within a different tradition: old-fashioned ghost stories and urban legends. An early scene finds the four main characters huddled around a campfire on a beach in their quaint seaside town. There’s brainy Julie, whose about to start her pre-law career; Julie’s boyfriend Ray, who doesn’t have the money to go away to school; aspiring actress Helen, who has just won the local beauty pageant; and Helen’s boyfriend Barry, who, it must be said, acts like an aggressive creep for the entirety of the film. The teenagers argue about the proper telling of a popular urban legend about a murderer with a hook for a hand. It’s an obvious little joke - I Know’s mysterious murderer carries a hook - and it also announces Williamson’s mission in this film. His goal is rather modest: he wants to tell us a tall tale, a maritime yarn that may or may not involve a ghost. Even the casting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Geller as Helen constitutes a bit of a double bluff—on TV Geller looked like a typical scream queen and turned out to be a terminator, but in this film and Scream 2, she carved out an alternate career as, well, a typical scream queen.
So how much you enjoy I Know What You Did Last Summer will depend largely on whether you’re up for this kind of scary story. For Scream, Williamson stuck his tongue in his cheek. For I Know, he sticks a flashlight under his chin.
Some of it is silly. After the four teens run over a fisherman in their car, they drag the body down to the docks and drop it into the ocean, fearing for their futures. (Curiously, the teenagers never weigh the body down. If they had a video store clerk friend with a solid background in gangster movies, he might have said something.) A year later, Julie receives the ominous message of the film’s title. Barry is - hilariously - dubious about the connection between the note and the cover up, asking, “How do you know this is even related? You did a lot of things last summer!” What follows is an occasionally rickety guessing game in which fisherman’s slickers become objects of dread and cause for accusation. The male characters do a lot of gratuitous macho posturing (particularly Barry); and Julie and Ray have a few tearful conversations about their crumbled relationship, scenes that typically end with Julie blurting something like, “There is no you and me!” before running dramatically offscreen.
Meanwhile, lovers of gory makeup effects might feel starved by the end of the picture: I Know What You Did Last Summer is notable among nineties slasher films for its almost jarring sense of restraint. The body count is fairly low for this kind of affair, with a greater emphasis placed on suspense than pools of blood. (On my most recent viewing I was tickled by a scene where Helen wakes up to discover that the fisherman has - horror of horrors - cut some of her hair. I get that it’s a threat, but in the meantime she ends up with a pretty cute bob.)
The screenplay is quite loosely adapted from a YA thriller-cum-morality tale by Lois Duncan (whose novel Killing Mr. Griffin seemed to offer the inspiration for Williamson’s directorial debut Teaching Mrs. Tingle a few years later), and while the author would complain that the film version made murder something to giggle about, some vestige of her original text remains, keeping the movie from straying into the amoral territory that some splatter flicks actively scout out. I Know What You Did Last Summer’s young characters are dogged by guilt, and that helps Williamson and director Jim Gillespie scare up a sufficient sense of dread. They also put together some solid chase sequences (including one onboard a ship) and tease a few good scares out that of inherently goofy hook-wielding fisherman. (The best one comes when the fisherman hides among some mannequins in a closed department store.) The end result may not exactly be a horror landmark, and it wasn’t really the start of a durable horror franchise either, spawning one dismal theatrical sequel and a direct-to-video affair that I only discovered when researching for this review. But I Know What You Did Last Summer is a competent little slasher and reasonable enough B-movie comfort food, and its presence in 1997 assured us that mainstream horror really had risen from its grave.
The Thin Blue Line1988
The Ninth Configuration1980
Dying Room Only1973
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave1968
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde1920
I Know What You Did Last Summer1997
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark1973
To the Devil a DaughterUK / West Germany
The Town that Dreaded Sundown1976
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later1998
Frankenstein Created Woman1967
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer1998
Let Me In2010
The Phantom of the Opera1925