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Plot holes abound, Last Summer succeeds from good casting

I Know What You Did Last Summer

Some movies are meant for entertainment purposes only. These are the films which you almost want to laugh at because the writing is bad, or the acting sucks. I Know What You Did Last Summer is one of these films. The acting is quite good for a film of this genre, but the writing is very mediocre, bordering on hideous. Based on Lois Duncan's revered novel, I Know What You Did Last Summer's story is changed dramatically on the transition from novel to screen. Instead of being a psychologically probing teenage story, Last Summer ends up as a horror film, with some psychological moments in the first hour. In fact, the first hour is very well done, with characters you get to know and like, and some you don't like, and that is when screenwriter Kevin Williamson shifts the mood to horror.

I have no objections to the alteration, but I will say that much of his writing is rather cheesy at times. This is quite unusual coming from the writer of the highest-grossing horror film Scream. What made that film such a success though, was the smart, ironic take on the teen slasher genre. Last Summer doesn't exactly make fun of motion pictures as Scream did (I think the closest example was when a character commented, "Jodie Foster did this in a movie..."), and sometimes it uses the cliches talked about in Williamson's previous film. But what makes Last Summer work isn't exactly the writing. The plot is the high point of the script, with the dialogue being the lowest, but the cast makes up for a lot of the plot holes left (and there are quite a few). However, actors can never cover up every single plot hole, no matter how good they are. Thankfully, the direction by Jim Gillespie is usually well done, creating a lot of suspense and terror.

I Know What You Did Last Summer begins with a very impressive shot which zooms in onto a lone character, sitting on the edge of a cliff. His solitude creates tension on the screen from the start, as we begin to dread the fate of this character. However, it doesn't turn out as you might think, as fireworks break the silence. The annual Croaker Festival is occuring, and the highlight of the evening is the Croaker Queen Pageant, as a few high school students perform and answer questions in their swimming suits (a crack at the Miss America Pageant?). One of these students is Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose answer to her question is a very funny spoof of beauty pageants. Helen wins, obviously, and becomes the year's Croaker Queen (a very nice foreshadowing effect, I might add). Her three friends best friends, Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe), and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.), all sit in the balcony and cheer.

After the crowning and party, the four jump in a car and race to the beach to tell stories about killers with hooks (the foreshadowing is almost overwhelming). They all have sex, and then drive home. Turning a curve, Ray is distracted by Barry and doesn't see the shadowy figure whom they mow down with the car. After dumping the nearly dead body into the ocean, the four have to struggle with their consciences, changing their lives forever. Julie takes it the hardest, and she becomes the central character of the film. A year passes, and Julie is nearly flunking out of college. Her roommate suggests that she go home to take a break from college and "get a tan." At home, she receives a mysterious letter, with "I Know What You Did Last Summer" printed on it. She contacts all of her friends again, and they begin a search of who could know. The most obvious would be Max (Johnny Galecki) who drove by the scene of the accident.

Very quickly, bodies start piling up, and Julie and her friends begin a race of survival and mystery. Who is the killer? Could it be the dead victim himself? All these questions are answered, rather insufficiently because we, the audience, are never given a chance to figure out for ourselves who is doing it (something Scream did very well). However, the mystery is not really an essential part of the film. The purpose of Last Summer is to gross audiences out and scare us while doing it. The film succeeds at this basic premise quite well, and so I am giving the movie a recommendation. I will admit that what Last Summer did to make me like it was put good characters into the situations. Many critics claim that the characters are unoriginal and uninspired, but I assume that that is exactly what Williamson's intentions were. Unfortunately, there is really only one interesting male figure in the film, Max, the friendly fisherman, but he is left in the shadow of the four stars.

Kevin Williamson's screenplay manages many scary moments, along with a truly suspenseful highlight, which lasts around ten minutes. After watching Last Summer, I realized that true suspense isn't watching someone being chased around by a mysterious killer (although that extended sequence is the highlight aforementioned). True suspense is expecting something to happen and then waiting for it to occur. You know someone is going to jump out of the shadows, but who will it be, and when will it happen? Sometimes, it doesn't occur at all, and the suspense lingers as we continue to expect it. Director Jim Gillespie is no Wes Craven, but he does manage to create some genuine suspense, along with several of those "jump" moments that we all know and love. Unfortunately, many scenes create unintentional humor because the writing requires one thing, while Gillespie does another. Williamson does write a very intelligent first half, which deals with the guilty consciences of the friends. This setup gives the audience an emotional connection with the characters, making us care for them as they are stalked.

The cast is one of the best parts of the film. Jennifer Love Hewitt is obviously the main character here, although one might think director Gillespie was trying to give Sarah Michelle Gellar the starring credit. Hewitt's presence is very reminiscient of Neve Campbell's role in Scream, but Hewitt's reaction to every situation seems appropriate and accurate. I liked her character, and Hewitt added a lot to it. Gellar nearly steals the film with a cheesy spoof of beauty queens, obsessed with their hair. Gellar, from TV's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," seems like a perfect choice for this role, and she adds more depth to the shallow character than required. I'm not sure if we were supposed to care for the character, but with Gellar in the role, I dreaded the entire chase sequence involving her and the killer. Freddie Prinze Jr. gives no depth to his character, and his performance is probably the worst in the film. Ryan Phillippe is good as his cliched character, but we never are very clear on what his intentions are. Anne Heche gives a very good performance, although listening to her talk, I began to realize that none of the other characters had Southern accents. Heche is given a small shred of a role, but she does a lot with it. Johnny Galecki portrays the only male figure that I liked in the movie. Galecki has a very unclear role, and this uncertainty gives us yet another character to add to the list of possible killers.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is rated R for strong, graphic horror violence, terror, and language. Because the film is based on a novel, I forgave the killer's choice of weapon. I kept expecting one of the characters to remark on how similar this is to Candyman, the frightening 1992 horror film. Normally I don't like humor in a slasher film like this (I didn't really appreciate the over-the-top performance in Scream), but this film certainly could have used some. Last Summer isn't scary enough to make you scream, and as a result, should have added humor to make it more entertaining. For what it is though, this film certainly is fun to watch.

*** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews