Saturday 14 November 2009

I know, and I don't care

It is, perhaps, a poor idea to begin by reviewing a film I loathed. Relentless negativity may be progressive, if Adorno is to be believed, but it is hardly pleasant, and it is difficult to form objective judgments while still fuming from the experience. I nevertheless feel compelled to lambaste I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Needless to say, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) is a core example of the second wave of slasher films that began, by common consensus, with Wes Craven's Scream (1996) and unceremoniously fizzled out in the first few years of the current decade, replaced by splatter films (Saw, Hostel) and the current flood of remakes. The film also rather undeservedly did much for the careers of its stars, and the title has entered popular culture, with some wonderful results. I, of course, like to think of myself as a child of the 1990s, even though I was in fact too young to actually see these films at the time. (The first film I did see at the cinema was Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, back in 1998. I loved it. Clearly, I was not too discriminating when I was ten years old.)

Enough unjustified nostalgia for now. Back to I Know What You Did Last Summer, which opens with a fairly ambitious shot of the coast of North Carolina, and rapidly goes downhill from there. We are introduced to our protagonists (heroes is hardly the right word): high school seniors Barry (Ryan Philippe), Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), and Ray (Freddie Prinze, Jr. - remember those days? I certainly don't), who is the only one of the four not to be filthy rich, a fact he complains about incessantly. The establishing scenes are decent; strangely, '90s teen idols are rather good at playing shallow party-folk. Driving home from the beach late at night, our plucky heroes accidentally run over a man, apparently killing him; fearing for their future they decide, as you do, to dump the body in a nearby river.

ONE YEAR LATER (so the movie solemnly declares) Julie returns home from her first year at college and finds a note declaring (surprise) 'I know what you did last summer'. An inane plot then ensues in which the protagonists are stalked by a mysterious fisherman who kills people with a fish-hook (yes, really) and must find out his identity in order to... what? The revelation of who the killer really is is hardly a twist (since we are not given enough information to figure it out), and the ending is bog-standard slasher film cliché.

Why is I Know What You Did Last Summer a bad film? The trouble begins with the script by Kevin Williamson (writer of Scream and creator of Dawson's Creek). It's generally a lame re-tread of other, better films, although Williamson is generous enough to introduce his own plot-holes (you'll forgive the spoilers). There is, for instance, no convincing reason as to why the killer actually knows the identities of the teens. The entire middle act is an idiotic detective plot; moreover, the killer murders five people in this film, two of whom were not guilty of What You Did Last Summer, but merely in the way, and one of whom is killed for absolutely no reason at all. This renders the premise (a revenge killing spree) entirely void.

Nor does Jim Gillespie's direction help things, for Gillespie simply does not know how to film horror. Good slasher movies work by slowly but steadily increasing suspense and creating an overwhelming atmosphere of dread, followed by short, sharp and brutal pay-off. Gillespie is evidently not aware of this. He barely builds up atmosphere at all, and as a result the Fisherman does not feel like the hand of inexorable fate (the ideal of a slasher movie villain), but like some dude who likes to kill people. The kills themselves are shot downright incomprehensibly, another major faux-pas (the audience should be scared, not confused). There is, in short, not one frightening moment in the entire film, and it is almost as if Gillespie knows this, for he uses cheap shock tactics in an attempt to compensate, to no avail.

These directorial failures place a considerable burden on the actors, and they fail miserably. Ryan Philippe is, of course, ideally cast in the role of an arrogant upper-class kid (effectively the same role he was later to play in Cruel Intentions), and does fine with the part. Sarah Michelle Gellar is also passable, but Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze, Jr. are both awful. Awful. Neither makes their respective character believable for even a second, and I would not hesitate to call their strained attempts to convey emotions as befitting a school play, had I not seen some school plays that were rather better than this. They do not once succeed at making us see the characters, only pretty young actors trying and failing to be said characters. One wonders if Gellar might have made a better Final Girl than Hewitt, but she would likely have appeared too smart, too knowing, lacking Hewitt's wide-eyed vacuity.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is, in short, terrible. It is not terrible in an enjoyable way, like, for instance, this year's Sorority Row (which, despite being a remake of a 1983 film, borrowed liberally from I Know What You Did Last Summer). Instead of so-bad-it's-goodness, this film merely delivers badness, entirely without redeeming traits. And that, I think, is a bit sad. For my part, I have certainly had a much better time bashing it than watching it.

In this series: I Know What You Did Last Summer | I Still Know What You Did Last Summer | I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer

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