I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

“We made a pact and we’re going to keep it.”

I Know What You Did Last Summer pulls off a feat very few genre pictures have proven to be capable of; it’s a slasher film with characters who are, collectively and on their own, as dumb as a bag of rocks, and yet the movie itself is intricate and studied. After the predominance of more nuanced psychological horror movies throughout the 80’s, this movie breathes new life into the niche urban legend genre, creating a space where mistakes and lapses in judgement are able to literally haunt the people at its center. Last Summer is as appropriately dimwitted as its technical execution is surprisingly sharp.

Per protocol, the movie features four typical archetypes. Julies James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is the virginal flower. Swooning her is Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a working class member of the North Carolina coast. The pretty, popular and insecure Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) dates the affluent and virile Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe). A fateful 4th of July finds them in the same car, heading home after a party and some extracurricular activities on the beach, only to hit a man in the middle of the road. Do they call the cops? Barry’s violently drunk, and it’s his car, so there’s no way they’ll believe he wasn’t driving. So what’s the most logical decision? Dispose of the body. For better and for worse, Last Summer acts on the inept decisions of people who aren’t ready to be adults. They’re incapable of handling consequence.

That is, at least, until the following Summer. They all receive intimidating letters lacking a postmark, and the four are forced to join forces once more after threats on their lives have been made. Last Summer is very predictable in this aspect; it sets up bad guys who become victims, uses ambiguity to an almost deafening effect, and it relies on fearful assumptions to create an atmosphere of fear. We don’t assume this movie will be smart, though. From the terribly dated poster, all we really want is a picture with a few scares that forces us to pick the survivors from the line-up. In that regard, Last Summer is rather routine and expected. After all, there is a sequel (a really, really, bad sequel).

I Know What You Did Last Summer has scares, blood, murder and a bit of convenient mystery, but the movie is less a slasher flick and more a lesson in dealing with the manifestation of self-imposed horror. The acting is, save for Phillippe and Gellar, rather atrocious, and tends to adhere to the rules of the genre while the story quietly subverts them. At one point we hear, “it’s a fictional story created to warn young girls of the dangers of having premarital sex.” Last Summer, despite its lapses in logic and its willingness to challenge expectations, tells us the kind of cautionary campfire tale you’d hear in a weird health class, resulting in hot embers and high flames. I Know What You Did Last Summer is no Scream, but it is better than most of its kind.

“The secret’s killing us.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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