13 August 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD MID-WEEK BONUS: THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL

The late-'90s slasher film renaissance that reached its highest popularity with the Scream trilogy collapsed in on itself after the turn of the century. Absent a few very special examples - many of them featuring Jason Voorhees - there have been surprisingly few pure slasher films made in the '00s. At the same time, the goddamnable chimeras that filled the void left by Scream 3 and came to dominate, if not completely define the horror genre, are testament to the slasher form's durability. There are exceptions, of course, but as a rule, to see a horror film is to see a collection of young people move through very much the same three acts that so many horny potheads in the 1980s helped to refine. From PG-13 ghost stories to the nastiest of the torture pornos, the gentle arc of meeting the characters, watching them as they think about sex for some thirty minutes, wondering when the scary bits are supposed to happen, and then watch as one by one, everybody but the Final Girl is killed or incapacitated; this arc has branched beyond the psycho killer into every last nook where scary movies are found.

At the same time, the slasher itself has all but dried up, like I said, and the rare pure-blood example of the subgenre tends to stand out as a rara avis something that you sense on some level just should not be. And not for nothing, but contemporary slasher films tend to be pretty lousy: they don't get to be all that gory, since we have the torture films for that now; they don't have famous stars, because they can all get away with PG-13 films; and they're only very rarely all that stylish. Take all this together, and the scattered new wave of slasher films ends up feeling a whole lot like the first wave. This, at least, is what struck me, to my absolute surprise, while watching the incredibly dull I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, an eight-years-later attempt to wring some blood out of a dead franchise that went straight to DVD in 2006, and for damn good reason. It's as perfunctory as a movie could possibly be: not by any means good or even particularly competent, but nothing about it is so freakishly dumb as its two predecessors, which means it's not half as much fun to watch and mock. But honestly, after my five-week sojourn in the 1990s, where everything was madly keyed into pop culture, IAKWYDLS felt almost like seeing a friend again for the first time in years. Its anonymous actors, deeply unconvincing sets and often flat, overlit cinematography all made it feel like one of the great bland slasher films of old, not like these shiny new pieces of crap with their famous faces and glitzy production values. Apparently, the enforced cheapness of direct-to-video purgatory is just what the slasher film needed, to find its roots. Of course, usually, "finding its roots" in arts and entertainment suggests a concurrent spike in quality, but the slasher's roots are shriveled and horrible. So when all is said and done, I'd still much rather watch any of the Scream films - because even if IAKWYDLS feels authentic, it also really, really sucks.

It's 4 July, 2005, in the small town of Broken Ridge, Colorado, where the annual carnival is in full swing, and our core group of Meat is out and about having fun, playing midway games, and spreading urban legends about The Fisherman, known to us as Ben Willis: a specter that appears every Independence Day to kill teenagers with his hook, ever since exacting his revenge on a particular group of teens some years ago. Now, as Colby (David Paetkau) tells this story to a Ferris wheel car filled with giggling high-schoolers, it's just a scary story to make him seem big and tough in front of his girlfriend Amber (Brooke Nevin). But only a few minutes later, there seems to be a great deal more to it than just "a friend of mine has this friend whose brother's roommate said...", for who should appear in the midway but a man in a slicker with a hook. He manages to nail Colby on the arm, before chasing a certain P.J. (Clay Taylor), like Colby a graduated senior, newly signed up for the Marine ROTC), to the top of a roof. There he flails around, terrified, as a horde of onlookers watch him hop on a skateboard and jump off the roof.

Colby and Amber can hardly contain their laughter. See, they and P.J., along with their other friends Zoe (Torrey DeVitto) and Roger (Seth Packard) had this all planned out: it was a practical joke like Broken Ridge had never seen and never would again. But things maybe didn't go exactly well: on the way to retrieve the "victim", Colby notices in dazzled amazement "somebody moved the mattresses", and apparently replaced them with a tractor, upon which P.J. now lies impaled. Naturally, the core four are freaked out, and given that P.J.'s father (Michael Flynn) doubles as the local sheriff, they conclude that the better part of valor is to hide ther involvement in his death from everyone. They burn the costume and throw the hook - which Roger insists he bought from eBay as the actual hook from the actual murders, even though so far everyone has seemed content to treat Ben Willis's two-year killing spree as the fanciful stuff of myth - into the lake.

The action then flashes to 1 July, 2006 (almost two weeks later than this film's European DVD debut, making IAKWYDLS a science-fiction movie), in which Amber is sad and staring at P.J.'s grave, and the film settles, rather cozily, into being a straight-up retread of the original I Know What You Did Last Summer, aye, with different specific character details, but generally speaking the beats of the story are quite similar and at times the dialogue even consciously echoes the earlier film. The four have grown apart; Amber gets a text reading "I know what etc.", and they start to freak out, trying to find out who knows what happened and who is stalking around after them, killing Roger in the isolated ski-lift workshop where he's been working (after which death, by the way, we are treated to one of the most awesomely obvious "dead guy blinking" shots I've ever seen). Characters in this film map onto characters from the other, not with 1:1 exactitude, but fairly closely, and the details that don't quite line up were more likely than not transferred from some other original character. Frankly, given the extremely loose standards of horror remakes, I'll Always Know is a far more faithful remake of I Know than, just to pluck out a prominent example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is of TCM '74, even if they're calling it a "sequel".

Anyway, the action plays out as expected, with three likely suspects to be our killer: the sheriff, Deputy Hafner (K.C. Clyde), who knows what they did last summer, and P.J.'s cousin Lance (Ben Easter), finally putting the moves on Amber now that Colby has dumped her, who also knows what they did last summer. Though to be fair, the movie doesn't really give us much reason to believe that it's Lance. Anyway, things play out as they do, and a nice little stack of bodies has piled up by the time that our cast is reduced to just a couple..Spoiler alert time!

Amber and Lance have seen all the plausible suspects dead, and yet the man in black still chases them. Now, the identity of the killer is something that, in all honesty, came as a complete surprise. And if you've seen more than a handful of "mysterious" slasher films, you know how rarely that ever happens (take, for instance, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, in which Will's identity as Ben's son and collaborator couldn't have been telegraphed more clearly if they named him Will Benson - oh wait, they did). So part of me wants to praise the film for this one moment of crack-pot imagination, even if the only reason it works is because the killer's identity is so fucking bizarre that most of us would never even imagine it possible.

The killer is revealed to be - get ready for it - Ben Willis (Don Shanks). Or at least his rotting-skinned, glowing-eyed ghost. Which, okay, is in the spirit of the movie's opening monologue about the spectral fisherman. But still, it's pretty insane, don't you agree? I can, if I sit and fan-wank (or is that, antifan-wank?), come up with a plausible explanation. Ben, you see, has become a sort of avenging spirit, called to murder teens who don't go to the cops when they're involved in an accidental death. And perhaps he showed up for this particular set of teens, so many hundreds of miles from his home turf in North Carolina, because of his hook. Or perhaps writer Michael D. Weiss is just a coke fiend.

The nutso twist ending aside, this is not a terribly noteworthy film in any respect; a tremendous shame, given that the first two were at least notably idiotic, and memorable for the massive heights of their stupidity and incompetence. IAKWYDLS doesn't have much to differentiate it from any random horror film, besides the fact that it's 100% slasher movie. But like I said, there's a little slasher DNA in just about every horror movie now, so that's not by itself very exciting. The cinematography is at times lifted from the Texas Chainsaw remake, for no apparent reason other than because it looked cool there; the scare scenes are staged by director Sylvain White without a trace of elegance or effectiveness (he even manages to bungle the easiest kind of jump scare in the world: a character moves her head back, and another character is behind her. Even a gigantic clamor on the soundtrack couldn't make that moment at all frightening). It is, in all ways, unmemorable.

In some strange way, I am glad of it. The '00s in horror have been, generally speaking, a decade for mushing everything towards the average, and that one of the 1990s' most atrociously dense franchises has been "improved" or "reduced", depending on your tastes, into a film that can barely be distinguished from dozens of others; this, too me, makes IAKWYDLS a poster-child for its time. Not bad enough to be good, only its name makes it worthy of attention, and if that doesn't sum up the last 9 years of horror movies, I don't know what does.

Body Count: Now, that's a bit hard to say. It's 6, 7, or 8, depending on exactly how you define a body-count death. Does it count if it's after the fade-to-black at the end? What about if it's a ghost who gets destroyed but then comes back? These are the issues that I never really foresaw myself having to ponder, back when I decided to go to film school.

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)

3 comments:

Stephen said...

I didn't even know this movie existed. I'd say you really did your homework, but I feel that kind of implies both that it was surprising and difficult in any way.

KingKubrick said...

Damn the sterility of the modern slasher! Will we ever see a return to form. Another Halloween caliber film? (The original-although I admit I'm a rob zombie apologist. I think if he did an original concept slasher he could make a respectable entry to the genre)
P.S. I know respectable and slasher seems like an oxymoron. But after Deep Red (which I saw based on your rave review) I believe it is indeed possible.

Tim said...

Apologise to no-one for being a Rob Zombie apologist. Whatever other problems he's had in his career, The Devil's Rejects is a pretty amazing exploitation flick.