Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Film Appreciation - Not All Secrets Stay Buried

Cody Hamman will take Film Appreciation for the 1997 slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer to his grave.

In 1973, author Lois Duncan wrote a young adult novel titled I Know What You Did Last Summer, which only bears a passing resemblance to the cinematic adaptation that was released twenty-four years later. Duncan wasn't a fan of the 1997 I Know What You Did Last Summer movie, disappointed that her novel was used as the basis of a slasher - and if you know of the tragedy she dealt with in her life, you can understand why she wouldn't be a fan of slasher-type movies. But for me, the fact that the story had been turned into a slasher was the main drawing point for what was a major cinema event for me twenty-one years ago.

I was hyped in the build-up to the release of I Know because it was a new slasher movie to go see, it had been written by Kevin Williamson, who had just made a successful breakthrough with the screenplay of Scream (which was released ten months before I Know), and one of the film's stars was Sarah Michelle Gellar. I had just gotten into the Buffy the Vampire TV show over the summer of '97, and was in the midst of experiencing some Buffy madness when this movie reached the big screen.

My excitement level for I Know What You Did Last Summer was so high that I even managed to get my father to go along with my mom and I to see the movie on opening day, the only time my father ever went to see a horror movie with me. He was not a fan of the horror genre, but surprisingly he got wrapped up in the murder mystery aspect of this horror movie and ended up enjoying the movie well enough. It was a little awkward that he would do evil "muahaha" laughs during moments of tension, but that trip to the theatre went better than I expected overall.

Directed by Jim Gillespie, the film is set in the small fishing town of Southport, North Carolina and centers on a group of four teenagers who have recently graduated from high school and are spending their last summer together before they head off to pursue their dream careers. There's our obvious heroine Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who will be going to law school in Boston; her pal Helen Shivers (Gellar), who plans to move to New York and become "a serious actress; Helen's jock douchebag boyfriend Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe), who's dreaming of becoming a football pro; and Julie's nice guy boyfriend Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.), who will also be moving to New York.

While the teens are out celebrating the Fourth of July and Helen's win at the local Croaker Beauty Pageant, they make a mistake that threatens to destroy their lives when Ray hits a person while driving along a dark road on the coast in Barry's car. The person appears to be dead, and since Barry has been drinking heavily, spilled his alcohol all over the interior of the car, and expects the authorities to blame him for the accident, the group decides to dump the body into the ocean and pretend none of this ever happened. Julie is the only one who puts up an argument against the plan, but the others push through.

Once the body is dumped, with the fact that the person seems to have some life left in them as they hit the water providing a scare moment, the story jumps ahead a year to find that the weight of this secret has caused the relationships between the four teens to crumble. Julie returns home from school the next summer to find that Ray is still in town, working as a fisherman; Helen didn't have any luck in New York and quickly retreated home, getting a job in her family's department store; and Barry is also home from school and continuing to act like a douchey alcoholic.

The thing that brings the group back together is a note Julie receives in the mail saying "I know what you did last summer!" Soon it becomes clear that someone with knowledge of their crimes is playing a game of cat and mouse with them - sending notes, sneaking into the homes and messing with them, running Barry down in his own car. Soon enough this person steps up to committing murder themselves, wielding a hook, their identity hidden by the black slicker they wear.

While "The Fisherman" keeps busy killing people and toying with the main characters, the former friends work together to try to figure out who is after them. Local boy Max (Johnny Galecki), who's not a fan of Barry or Ray and drove past while they were trying to clear the crime scene? Helen's odd, antagonistic sister Elsa (Bridgette Wilson)? Someone related to the person they dumped in the water? Awkward country girl Missy Egan (Anne Heche, a year before the Psycho remake), who orders people to "get out of my house" when she actually means "get off my property", since they're outside?

This isn't a mystery for the ages, but it's intriguing and involving enough, adding an extra layer to the story. This isn't a slasher that's just about showing us acts of violence every few minutes, the viewer can put themselves in the characters' shoes and try to solve the mystery along with them. But there's still enough stalking and slashing in there that it holds up for further viewings even after you know who's beneath the slicker.

Slashers are primarily aimed at a teenage audience. This one was released when I was a teenager, and this teen had a hell of a lot of fun watching it, so much that it became the first movie I ever saw three times in the theatre. All three of those viewings were packed into October of 1997, the final one coming right before a trip to the Haunted Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. While Williamson had gone meta with his script for Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer was just a straightforward, old school slasher, and as a kid who grew up on the slashers of the '80s I loved it for that.

I felt The Fisherman could carry a franchise, and wanted to do my part in helping that franchise happen. By Halloween of 1997, I was writing a script titled I Know What You Did Last Summer II, which had the hook-wielding killer going after a new batch of Southport residents. Undeterred when I saw the announcement that a sequel titled I Still Know What You Did Last Summer already had a writer working on it, I mailed my own sequel script to the producers right around my fourteenth birthday.

Problem is, people in the industry have this policy of not reading unsolicited material, so I received my script back in the mail, unread, with a nice rejection letter. Lesson learned. But at least I gave it a try.

I'm not as hyped about I Know What You Did Last Summer as I was twenty-one years ago, but I still feel that it holds up as a decent slasher, and it's one that I like to return to every now and then. There are some logic leaps and instances of cheesy dialogue, but those aren't major strikes in a slasher movie. Because of the impact it had on me when it was released, it will always be a special one to me.

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