Horror is in transition. It used to be enough to have a crazy killer/monster/ghost type creature and a lot of nubile screaming babes. Everybody by now knows the clichés of the slasher film, if not from actually having seen a lot of them, at least from having seen Scream, where the "rules" of the horror game are ruthlessly subverted and parodied in the name of good fun, and even better scares.
As the world of comedy has learned, however, there is only so much mileage to be had from self-referential irony. Letterman was hilarious when he was making fun of himself as a potential member of the comedy establishment; now that he's there, the establishment itself, his non-comedy comedy doesn't play nearly as well as it used to. Conan O'Brien works in the world of the surreal and the ridiculous with great success--when all else fails to get laughs, the theory goes, be funny.
So we find ourselves in the Letterman phase of horror films. They're going to be good for awhile as self-exploitations. But that's going to get old fairly quickly. Then what? Back to pure scares, hopefully avoiding the clichés so thoroughly dissected by self-aware gore-fests like Scream.
Kevin Williamson, the smart, funny screenwriter who started this revolution with his script "Scary Movie," which became Scream, (one might argue it started with Child's Play, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or Wes Craven's New Nightmare) seems likely to be able to ride the wave of irony and come out on the other side, with his real ability to write scary. He may have the privilege of being his own Conan O'Brien.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is the second of Williamson's scripts (and hardly the last) to be produced. Scream 2 hits theaters this Christmas, Scream 3 is already written, and I Know What You Did 2 will be up next year.
I Know What You Did straddles two worlds of the self-awareness of Scream and the older (and newer) "pure scare" movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street. It's not completely outside itself. It wants to be a straight thriller/slasher film, but it desperately wants to leaven the proceedings by maybe just a wink here or there. But these attempts are rather pointless, even grotesque, like a bad pick-up line.
Aside from this post-Scream uncertainty in places, I Know What You Did is scary. It's the story of four teenagers, Julie James ("Party of Five"'s Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar, TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe), and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), who are celebrating the end of their last summer together when they accidentally hit someone crossing the road. Instead of going to the cops, they decide to dump the body and pretend it never happened.
Cut to the next summer. The kids' lives haven't gone as they planned. They've all been affected in some way by the hit-and-run. Then Julie gets a simple note which reads, "I know what you did last summer." A hasty reunion of the conspirators seems called for, and then the killing starts.
Anne Heche, the relatively new actress whose roles in Volcano and Donnie Brasco have marked her as a real talent to watch, makes a fascinating cameo.
It's all a lot of fun. Horror films are often criticized for being predictable and having stupid characters. These characters are less than smart at times, but you never have to forgive the screenwriter. It's all motivated, explained within the film. And it's fun to watch. You won't guess who the killer is. It doesn't go on too long. Everybody's good-looking, though a little more nudity would have gone a long way (Hey, it would have). They die interestingly.
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