The slasher gets an upgrade that fans will want to pick up.
It’s not possible to view I Know What You Did Last Summer through anything but rose-colored glasses. At least not for me. It was the first movie I ever bought for myself. A pre-viewed VHS from Hollywood Video, I still remember the walk to a from the video store. Being nervous that the clerk wouldn’t let me buy an R-rated movie despite my mom putting me on the account with no restrictions. I watched that tape the first time I ever attempted to write a movie review. That ended poorly when I realized I was just transcribing the movie’s opening scene. After fifteen minutes I put down the pen and told myself I’d give the review another go sometime later. Well, it appears that “later” is now. In correspondence with the film’s 25th anniversary 4K UHD release, it’s time to finish what I started.
When I first saw I Know What You Did Last Summer I was 13. The movie opened in October 1997 but I didn’t see it until it hit home video in the summer of 1998. That unconscionable delay between theatrical and home video release is unimaginable in today’s instant-access world. But then I think about the delays of the mid-to-late 90s and imagine my parents had similar thoughts while thinking about how long they had to wait for their favorites from the 70s and 80s. It’s all relative, I suppose. Anyway, I was still early in my horror fandom so every trick I Know What You Did Last Summer pulled worked me over like a street magician.
For those glorious souls who haven’t seen the film and don’t know the setup, it’s exquisitely concise. On July 4th a group of friends party too hard and accidentally hit a guy while driving along a winding mountain road. To preserve their collective futures the friends Helen, Barry, Julie, and Ray (the beauty queen who aspires to be an actress, the football player, the brainiac, and the local boy with a nice smile and limited prospects) dump the body in the ocean. Cut to a year later and someone with a giant hook and a rain slicker is out for revenge.
As far as post-Scream slashers go, I Know What You Did Last Summer’s bonafides are as strong as any other movie’s. With a script by Scream’s Kevin Williamson and cast featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ryan Phillippe…come on. The movie is simple and slick enough to encourage people to go along for the ride rather than engaging with the story’s dubious mythology. Despite being deadly serious in tone, there is fun to be had here. Director Jim Gillespie stages the scare sequences with a mix of menace and playfulness and the performances often go big, with lots of yelling and faux bravado. Maybe this cocktail doesn’t deliver the scares like it once did, but it’s entertaining. Really entertaining. The more the seams start to show, the more interesting the film becomes.
There’s an odd dynamic at play among the central quartet. Romantically, they’ve paired the blondes (Gellar, Phillippe) and the brunettes (Hewitt, Prinze Jr.). The script gives the more aspirational characters to the blondes, while the brunettes share a similar boy/girl next door homeliness. Maybe that’s supposed to be a cheeky bit of foreshadowing, but more likely it’s the kind of coincidence that only stands out on an umpteenth viewing. The thing that stands out more concretely, however, is the contrast in the performances. Gellar and Phillippe deliver the stronger performances, so there’s some genuine pathos to be found in the fates of Helen and Barry. Meanwhile, Julie and Ray are just bland enough to make it to the sequel.
While the movie is at its best during its set-pieces, the scene that stands out most is a bizarre recon trip to the sticks where Helen and Julie meet Missy, the sister of a potential suspect). As played by the late Anne Heche, Missy is awkward and creepy in that way all country folk are portrayed in this type of movie. But Heche’s performance gives Missy just enough depth to make this sequence unsettling in a way the movie struggles to achieve elsewhere. It’s the kind of performance you get when a supporting actor outclasses the stars and material, all while leaving something delightfully confounding in its wake.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is a movie that takes itself seriously so that we don’t have to. Frankly, that’s the best way to enjoy this Dead Teenager Movie, as Roger Ebert used to derisively refer to slasher movies. There’s a moment during the final showdown where Hewitt’s Julie interrupts a fist fight between Prinze Jr.’s Ray and Muse Watson’s killer by yelling out “Ray!” for no apparent reason. Ray dutifully stops fighting long enough to look at her before being knocked silly. You have to laugh.
For the film’s silver anniversary, Sony has given the film a respectable A/V upgrade. It’s hardly demo material, but the sheen is a nice improvement over what was out there prior. A trio of new features gives the disc a calling card compared to more basic upgrades. There’s a wistful and sometimes prickly interview with Muse Watson who discusses his reluctance to playing a serial killer and how he handled it. There’s a particularly amusing anecdote about Muse going to a screening of the film and sitting in front of some chatty moviegoers. Director Jim Gillespie sits in for a solid half-hour interview that is equally informative and entertaining. Filmed during Covid lockdowns, Gillespie basically gives a long Zoom lecture. He touches on a wide range of topics that will surely be interesting to fans of the film.
A quarter-century later and now I know how the trick is done. But I still get a kick out of the movie. I’ll begrudgingly admit that I Know What You Did Last Summer is not quite the horror masterclass my teenage self thought it to be. But I love it more now than ever.
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