To Hell with the critics: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Dir. Jim Gillespie, 100 min., on Netflix Instant Watch

Right off the bat, I already F-ed up by not watching Scream. Strike one. I planned on watching it on New Year’s Eve, but I fell asleep after about thirty minutes since we started it at 1 a.m. or so. But it got me thinking about two things in particular:

1. I watched a lot of movies in the 90’s that I only barely remember;
2. I tend to re-watch so called “bad” films, and I usually find them not nearly as bad as I remember.

In any case, I’m starting a feature called To Hell with the critics, where I’ll do my best to convince you that the films that critics (and possibly you) hated are much better than you remember. To qualify, a film must score lower than 50 on either RT or Metacritic (or both).

I picked a dandy to start with, 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddy Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Ryan Phillippe. Watching this film, it’s hard to believe how much it blatantly rips off of Scream (1996) and how much Urban Legend (1998) rips off from I Know What You Did Last Summer. They are all spinning off the same skein, drinking from the same well, etc.

The plot itself, if you’ve never seen the film, involves the accidental killing of a man by the four principle actors, and the events leading up to the anniversary of that killing. I remembered the plot being extremely simplistic, but there were actually quite a few nuances that I had missed when I saw the film in theaters 13 years ago.

For all of the exposition we get in most films nowadays, this film is surprisingly light on explanatory material. In fact, if the film has a real flaw (apart from the dreadful line delivery by the principles), it’s that the exposition is so poorly handled that when the big reveal comes at the end, it’s almost impossible to figure out what is going on unless you were paying very careful attention to the few bits of material that develop the backstory.

In terms of action/suspense sequences, it’s no Hitchcock, but the film delivers repeatedly. Take this sequence, which I would rank at least in the top 20 of horror film chase sequences. Underscored by Hoverphonic’s eerie “2 Wicky” muted in the background, this scene was one of the few that I remembered from my original viewing.

The sense of foreboding that accompanies the eventual reckoning for the characters is enhanced by the ominous score and lingering, contemplative shots. That being said, the score is somewhat obtuse, punctuated with heart-clenching jump points; likewise, the camera doesn’t linger nearly long enough. A film that takes a similar fatalistic approach is Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) which represents a much better vision for horror films that plays to the both the campiness and eerieness that horror film watchers expect without making it so obvious. In a particularly forced move, the hook-handeded lunatic urban legend is shoehorned in at a couple points.

Although a lot of the conventions seem dated and trite, the film was decidedly made for the masses and it was a wild success (at a budget of $17m, it grossed over $70m). A large part of that has to be attributed to the films four principle actors, who inhabit almost their own world. Part of that must have been due to the expense of casting: JLH was a successful TV star from Party of Five (remember when that was big?) and SMG was Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the two male leads were relative unknowns at the time (this film made them 90’s icons), though RF did have several bit parts going in.

The consensus amongst critics seemed to focus on the numerous slasher cliches, and coming off of the heals of Scream just one year prior, it would be easy to see why critics would trash this film (a lousy 39% on RT, a slightly better 52 on Metacritic). I would argue that the film does not take itself nearly so seriously as to deserve the vitriolic rants that it garnered at the time of it’s release. The killer is a crazy fisherman with an ice hook dressed in a rain slicker. C’mon, are you seriously going to sit at your desk and blast the film for failing to cross a few T’s?

This film gives the female (and to a lesser extent, male) leads a space to dress scantily and brood. The fact that there are numerous creepy details added in and a fabulous cameo by Anne Heche as a slightly imbalanced rustic are what make the film re-watchable; the performances from the fab four of the 90’s are relatively forgettable.

Clearly the director had an eye for details, regardless of the hack horror setups.
In part, films with an ominous deadline just seem to play better in that regard, in that the pacing is (or should be) relatively straightforward, leaving more time to work in details (e.g. the handwritten notes, the tired looking floats and parade from the beginning of the film, etc.). This film gives you a sense that things are building to a climax, while retaining the sense of danger that the characters (are supposed to) feel.

What happened to the actors (and director for that matter)? Not much. Much like the brat pack, they have seen little in the way of post-twenties success. From the action Gillespie has seen in the subsequent years, you would think that this film was a commercial disaster; he’s hardly directed anything of note. In terms of cultural ephemera, the film mostly misses the mark (other than the soundtrack which is somewhat dated), which is both disappointing and strangely affirming of my defense. I would argue that the film has aged well, in fact, divorced from the hype of it’s release. You’ll have to grit your teeth to get through some of the dialogue, but if you can let that go, the film is well worth the short running time.