I Know What You Did Last Summer [1997]

I won’t pretend to real expert knowledge on the origins of the Slasher, but it would appear to rise to prominence in the 1980s with the Friday the 13th [1980] and Halloween [1978] sequences. It is tempting to see it as a reaction to the serial killer films that began to emerge a decade before with the likes of Dirty Harry [1971]. If we think that detective-oriented shows are basically reassuring, serial killer films present an incredibly dark perspective on the potential for human evil, but ameliorate that through the success of the detective. The slasher uses that impetus, stripping out the detective and the little of what humanity remained to the killer – there is no reassuring message of eventual justice, because even when the slasher is killed, the evil somehow remains. Maybe that seemed like the only way forward for the genre after definitive supernatural horrors in the 1970s like The ExorcistA Nightmare on Elm Street [1984] re-united the plot motifs of the slasher with the supernatural power of the meta-genre of horror. It would be easy to see The Silence of the Lambs as the book-end of the original slasher impetus, as Hannibal is a more complete and terrifying villain than Jason could ever dream of being.

The whole idea seemed played out until Scream [1996] was released. Scream is definitely a slasher, but it is also explicitly meta-fictional, and hence satiric, which gave it an interest beyond simply being horrified. A year later, I Know What You Did Last Summer [1997] felt like it hadn’t got the memo. It felt like a tired re-tread of a played-out genre whose opening act tried to tap into some of Scream‘s intelligence, but only pointed out its own idiocy. Re-watching it nearly 17 years later, it’s possible to be a little kinder, at least partially because its very conventional construction provides a convention baseline that we can use to think about the structure of the story.

The central killer in a slasher film stalks his prey. It is a game of cat-and-mouse, and they seem to need or enjoy the fear of their victims as much as the actual death. This is a slight difference from the serial killer film, in which the killer imagines a positive relationship that has been betrayed; that relationship is usually extremely creepy from the outside, so the manifestation of these two interactions is often fairly similar. The slasher has a relationship with a group of people, while the serial killer connects more closely with a single victim at a time. In a way, we could think of the slasher’s murders as parallel, because all are simultaneously in his sights, while the serial killer focuses on one victim at a time. The slasher kills one victim at a time, by separating them from the group, but that is in part a logistical consideration.

One or more characters always investigates the killer, and this mystery is usually fairly perfunctory. The logic of the story is driving the characters to a head-to-head confrontation with the killer, generally once the numbers have thinned down to the last two from the victim pool. It doesn’t matter much, therefore, whether they really understand what’s going on or not, since in that final confrontation all can be revealed by a monologue.

If we think about how well I Know What You Did Last Summer strings these things together, we can stop comparing it to superior films that vary from the formula and appreciate it more on its own terms. It provides as compelling a reason for the group to be targeted as almost any other slasher I can think of. The group is splintered by the act that makes them a target, and so it’s a lot easier for the specific logic of this film to align with the requirements of the formula. Each of the killing sequences is itself well executed – we know inevitably how they end, but the twists and turns are all well timed.

We can also appreciate how slick its production is. The sequences all follow each other, and the actors commit to their actions and re-actions. You could contrast something like Valentine [2001], whose shot-by-shot construction now feels somewhat jokey, and whose acting seems strangely wooden most of the time. It does suffer a little from everyone being a little too pretty and clean, but not enough to detract from the enjoyment – for me at least.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is a better film than I remembered, though that’s still not saying a whole heck of a lot.

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