19 July 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: I KNOW, BUT I DON'T WANT TO KNOW

The wild success of Scream had two primary reverberations: first, and most famously, it led to a resurgence of the slasher formula and to teen horror more generally; second, it made writer Kevin Williamson one of the hottest creators in Hollywood, for a little while anyway. Largely, these two trends continued hand in hand, as Williamson's features for the next few years consisted mainly of one kind of horror picture or another, even as his better-known TV work was largely a matter of soaps for teens - the notorious Dawson's Creek and the blissfully short-lived Wasteland. Happily, his stardom fizzled out rather quickly - I like to think that the meteoric rise of Joss Whedon probably had something to do with that, given that his style is basically the same as Williamson, only better - leaving him naught but a footnote in pop culture history, the enfant terrible who didn't survive growing up.

But that happy day was still far in the future in the autumn of 1997, when Columbia released I Know What You Did Last Summer, a soapy slasher film from a screenplay Williamson wrote prior to Scream adapted from a 1970s young adult thriller by Lois Duncan; adapted so very loosely, to Duncan's horror, that she very nearly managed to keep her name off the movie completely. As it stands, her credit appears at the very end of the closing credits scroll, succeeded only by the copyright information.

I haven't read Duncan's novel, but I'll agree with her on this point: I Know What You Did Last Summer, or IKWYDLS for the sake of not having to keep typing it out all the damn time, is bad. Bad enough, certainly, to make me feel a bit sorry for how harsh I was on Scream. At least that movie had a brain in its head and a gifted director behind the camera, whatever other problems might have been there, but IKWYDLS is So. Damn. Dumb. Not epically idiotic, like the worst of the '80s, slashers, and not irredeemably tawdry, like the worst of the '80s slashers, and not incompetently made, like... ah, but I can tell that you see my point. No, IKWYDLS, and it turns out that the acronym is just as fucking annoying to type out as the whole title, is just a colossally dumb movie. This is not the only one of its sins, nor the most offensive, but it is the sin that just keeps coming up again and again, stretched out across 100 minutes. It does not get dumber during that time, but maintains the same baseline level of dumbness, and it is, oh my, such a tremendously dumb baseline at that.

The story begins on July 4, presumably in 1996, with the film's only artistically viable moment, a truly ambitious helicopter shot across what feels like miles of open water, as the first of the film's wretched covers of '60s and '70s music screeches across the soundtrack ("Summer Breeze", here butchered by Type O Negative; by the way, remember when horror movies were used to pitch crappy CDs full of '90s rock? Good times). We land, to find in short order that we're in Southport, North Carolina, a fishing community whose Independence Day celebrations are highlighted by the election of the Croaker Queen at the local beauty pageant (why "Croaker Queen"? Because "Miss Southport" isn't a lame pun, I suppose).

This year's Croaker Queen is a high school senior named Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), one quadrant in a tight-knit circle of friends, including her boyfriend Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe), her BFF Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), and Julie's boyfriend Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), who is the least-integrated member of the group on account of being from a significantly lower economic class than the rest. But this doesn't bother anyone except slightly for Barry (who exudes the oily smugness that only a character played by Ryan Phillippe, named "Barry Cox", could ever exude), and so the four enjoy a pleasant night on the beach, drinking and swapping scary stories - or rather, trying to each tell their own version of the same scary story, whose details are not nearly as importance as its foreshadowing subtext, which goes a bit like this:

RAY: "So, we're all going to be menaced by a psychopath with a hook later on in the movie."
HELEN: "No! You don't say?"
RAY: "Oh, undoubtedly."

On the way back, a sensible conversation about how Barry, drunk out of his gourd, should be kept away from the steering wheel of his car turns into an angry tirade that ends tragically when Ray, driving, is distracted long enough that he plows over a man in a black slicker, standing in the middle of the moonlit road. This leads to a lengthy argument over what to do with the body, which breaks down along these lines: Julie wants to call the police (this, plus her brown hair, marks her inexorably as our Final Girl); Helen feels guilty enough to agree, but mostly just wants to do what the group wants; Barry is certain that he'll be hung out to dry, since he's drunk and it's his car; Ray is certain that he'll be hung out to dry, since he's poor. The boys eventually lean on the girls hard enough that they all agree to dump his body off a nearby pier, though not before they're spotted by another teen, Max (Johnny Galicki), their collective rival. That puts a slightly paranoid mood over the foursome even before their cargo reveals that he isn't completely dead yet, and a few struggles later he ends up in the water, glaring balefully at Barry.

A year later, Julie returns from school out east, having taken summer courses to help prop up her uncharacteristically awful grades. She's not the only person who has spent the intervening 12 months letting her life fall apart: Helen has given up her dream of acting in New York to work under her sister Elsa (Bridgette Wilson) at the Shivers family store, while Ray is slumming around on the docks, having joined Southport's legion of fishermen (though by all appearances, he has an extremely swanky set-up, leaving his bitching and moaning about what an impoverished proletariat he has become sound awfully hollow). Only Barry, being a smug dick, has managed to survive the year without any real emotional trauma. None of the four have had much contact since last summer - as Helen tells Julie, and it's actually heartfelt, "I missed you" - but they're going to find themselves spending a lot of time together this July 4 weekend, following Julie's receipt of an anonymous handwritten note in block letters that reads, "I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER," and the discovery by the police of a dead body that was apparently tossed in the sea about a year ago. It never crosses anyone'e mind that the man they left to die wasn't actually dead when they last saw him, and so the next 50 minutes of the film consist of a protracted investigation into who might have a grudge against them for killing this fellow that, everyone in the audience figures out instantly, isn't the man they actually hit with the car. Fifty minutes. During which time there is not the slightest indication that they're on the wrong track, except for raw logic and sense. I would now lash out at the rampaging contempt with which the filmmakers clearly viewed their audience at this point, except that I am afraid that I know the point upon which the plot of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer hinges, and it's even more openly contemptuous, and I need to keep some indignation in reserve.

Here's the deal: IKWYDLS is in a lot of ways fairly close to being a more than functional Dead Teenager movie. The opening half hour (taking us to the point where Julie comes home from school) does a pretty decent job of setting up four distinct characters, who maybe each tend a little bit towards cliché, but we can't have everything. Their response to the inciting scenario of the film is pretty believable, all things considered; they're stupid, scared kids, they know what they did is wrong, and that it gnaws on them for months afterwards is perfectly reasonable. We're not talking Chekhov here, but the characters work, and the plot they find themselves in works, so far as teen horror goes.

Then IKWYDLS squanders all of that with an absolutely unforgivable, absolutely endless second act, that can only work if the viewer is a wretched moron; or at least, it proves that the filmmakers were themselves wretched morons. I am not going to attempt to elucidate everything about the middle of the film that is unbelievably, unforgivably stupid, because that would be a list running into the thousands of words; you can see just such an example right here, scroll down a bit. Not even at the darkest moments of the '80s slasher were we asked to swallow such a bill of goods as IKWYDLS tries to sell. It is barbarically mindless.

I mentioned, though, that this wasn't its most offensive problem. What's worse, to my mind, is that the film is such a thin, soapy, pandering slice of white bread. I did not mention, in my review of Scream, some of the most odious things it did to the modern slasher film, largely because I knew that IKWYDLS was in the offing, and I figured I'd save it. So here goes: post-1996, the horror film has become unforgivably sanitary. Even with an R rating - and so many teen horror films, especially in the '00s, have been given a PG-13, it makes a grown man cry - these are very safe and friendly movies, not much unlike the TV shows where so many of their casts come from. Which is another problem, in fact: the presence of people from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Party of Five in place of random nobodies who were largely cast, in the women's cases, because they were willing to walk around topless. At its worst, this results in Automatic Death Exemption for whatever member of the cast is most famous; Neve Campbell was always going to survive Scream, because she was Neve Campbell (that Gellar does not see the end of IKWYDLS is thus surprising, though less so given that everybody involved was more or less famous in 1997). Hand in hand with that, there is essentially no nudity ever to be found in these films, which isn't something that I'm terribly bothered by per se; but given the choice between honest, exploitative nudity in a Friday the 13th, or the likes of IKWYDLS, in which starlets wear tight, cleavage-revealing tops and bend over a lot to give the camera a gooooood look down their shirts... it just seems sadder. No more tawdry, no more immoral, but a hell of a lot more pathetic.

And the almost complete dearth of good gore effects in post-'96 slashers, well, that's a taste matter too, but I can't imagine why anyone would prefer a terrible slasher movie with hardly any blood to an equally terrible slasher movie with buckets, especially since gore is very often the only thing any of these movies have that even arguably counts as a positive element.

This, then, is I Know What You Did Last Summer: a teen soap, but they're being hunted by a man with a weapon instead of doing whatever asinine things Dawson and Joey and Pacey did week in and week out. Anything that was ever remotely effective about the slasher film - and I know, that was pretty damn remote sometimes - has been buffed out of existence, ending with psycho killer films that have none of the danger and all of the insipidity, like a Disney World version of Bangkok. With nothing to distract from the utter stupidity of the movie, the stupidity is all the purer and harder to ignore; and at the same time, there's enough money being thrown at it, and enough "talent" in front of the camera, that it can't even lay claim to the thin joy of being a tremendously bad and trashy wallow in the gutter. It's just... useless.

Body Count: 5, with four of them in a ten-minute span near the end. And the first one is the most blatant kind of body count padding murder I've ever seen, a character killed for absolutely no reason by a man who has a very definite method to his madness.

Reviews in this series
I Know What You Did Last Summer (Gillespie, 1997)
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (Cannon, 1998)
I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer (White, 2006)

5 comments:

GeoX said...

I have never seen Dawson's Creek and know next to nothing about it, but I choose to believe that it is a location somewhat akin to Yoknapatawpha County, and that this "Dawson" person is the ancient patriarch of a family of decaying southern aristocracy. Prove me wrong!

javi75 said...

I listened to the director's audio commentary track of this movie, and he said Johnny Galecki's death ("the most blatant kind of body count padding murder I've ever seen, a character killed for absolutely no reason by a man who has a very definite method to his madness.", you say) was a re-shoot, after test screenings proved that without it, the movie lacked tension until too late when the hooked man starts to appear, and the audiences got bored by then.

J.D. said...

The sequels were even worse, if that's possible. And yet, somehow it is.

Pat (King!) said...

Maybe I'm misremembering my celebrity-rankings of the time, but I feel like I remember the buzz around Scream coming in large part because Drew Barrymore was thought to be the ostensible heroine, making her early death shocking. Not to say it isn't hard to guess who's gonna be the Final Girl when it's Neve & Co, but even so...

Rebecca said...

Lois Duncan wrote one of my favorite books that I read in middle school, so I was incredibly disappointed when I tried to follow that up by reading IKWYDLS and being incredibly bored and giving up around chapter 4. So I can't help with anything in the book to movie translation area.

However I'm incredibly happy that after a zillion years, you've finally managed to become a Whedon fanboy.