Film: "I Know What You Did Last Summer"
Stars: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinz Jr., Sarah Michelle Geear and Ryan Phillippe
Theaters: Annex, Eastland, Woodland Hills, Admiral Drive-in and Cinema 8 (Broken Arrow, Sand Springs)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Rating: R (violence, language, horror effects)
Quality: * * 1/2
(on a scale of zero to four stars)
With "I Know What You Did Last Summer," scripter Kevin Willamson -- along with the publicity mill at Columbia Pictures -- invokes comparisons to the mega-hit "Scream," which he also wrote. And, indeed, the similarities are there, from the loose and natural-sounding dialogue spoken by the young stars to the riffing on familiar horror-film conventions. He's even got another star from TV's "Party of Five" (it was Neve Campbell in "Scream"; it's Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Summer").
But "Scream" also had Wes Craven, one of the top horror directors of our time. "Summer" has Scottish director Jim Gillespie, making his American feature-film debut. Gillespie isn't bad, but he's not exactly Wes Craven. And "I Saw What You Did Last Summer" isn't exactly "Scream."
What Williamson and Gillespie have attempted here is a fresh look at the '80s-style slasher film, substituting characterization and suspense for the graphic violence and nudity that marked the earlier genre entries. Interestingly, the story hangs on good old heavy-duty guilt, which passed out of fashion years ago as a plot motivator. It's good to see it back.
The story is set up when our four stars, their first summer out of high school, accidentally run over a guy on a deserted seaside road. With the jock member of the group (Ryan Phillippe) swearing the rest to secrecy, they dump the body into the ocean and split. But the incident messes up their lives and relationships, and a year later, the smartest one of the four (Gellar) is so guilt-ridden that she's flunking out of college.
Then, her first day home on vacation, she gets a letter that reads, "I know what you did last summer."
The reluctant reteaming of the four -- including Gellar's character and her boyfriend (played by Freddie Prinz Jr., a lanky actor who looks little like his famous dad) -- makes for some interesting viewing, and the film is especially effective in the beginning and middle, as the hints of menace gradually evolve into full-blown attacks. It's far less engaging once the killing begins in earnest, simply because the hooded menace is unmasked too early, and becomes simply a snarling mean person.
Still, there are some smart little touches here. They start with the opening soundtrack tune, as the rock band Type O Negative takes a musical chainsaw to the sugary Seals & Croft ballad "Summer Breeze." They continue with a fishing-town beauty pageant in which a young woman (Sarah Michelle Gellar, of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is crowned Miss Croaker, and goes on to show it knows its milieu by hewing to lots of slasher-film conventions, including setting the action on July 4th, a holiday. (See the "Halloween" pictures, "My Bloody Valentine," "Black Christmas," ad infinitum.)
But this film subgenre is a restrictive one, and you can only stray so far from the basic track-'em-down-and-attack-'em structure. "Scream" tested the limits by being wildly self-referential and full of bizarre but believable teen behavior. Perhaps a lot of that was Wes Craven, because there's little in-joke material in "Summer," and not much offbeat humor.
Still, this is a film worth watching for horror fans, and while it may seem fatuous to say it -- given the subject matter -- it nonetheless takes the high road. The original slasher films were too often structured like porno flicks, with each bit of dialogue and action leading to an ultra-violent splatter effect, which was allegedly what the folks had come to see. In "Summer," the character interaction isn't just a setup for the violence, and the real moments of suspense, like the guilt-motivated plot, are old-fashioned -- and all the more effective for it.