As we've been told so often lately, there are a number of unbreakable rules in horror movies. Kevin Williamson, the writer of "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," knows the rules of horror almost as well as Quentin Tarantino knows the rules of trashy action flicks.
As Williamson's characters pointed out in "Scream," the rules state that sexually active teens always get the ax. Virgins always survive. And in the end, the dead villain is never really dead.
Williams would like to make a new rule. It states that as long as the characters in a horror film discuss the rules of horror films, the horror film they are in will be considered clever.
The first subject the four teens in this film discuss at length is the ending to a classic ghost story: the one about two lovers who, while making out in a car, hear on the radio that a killer is on the prowl.
Barry (Ryan Phillippe) says that the couple hears the feet of a hanging body scraping on their roof. Barry's girlfriend, Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), thinks that the couple hears blood dripping on their roof instead. Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) believes the killer has a hook for a hand. Ray's girlfriend, Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), doesn't believe any of it at all. But Ray insists that all folklore started with something true.
This moment of meta-horror strikes a humorous note that fades almost immediately. "Scream" kept up its running self-commentary through the very end, but "I Know What You Did Last Summer" stops pointing out its own cliches after about five minutes. With no irony to hide behind, the film quickly reveals itself to be a run-of-the-mill teen flick.
The rest of the film shows how that little campfire story becomes a real-life nightmare. Driving home from the beach, the teens run down a man on the highway. Fearing the repercussions (there's an open container in the car), they conspire to dump the body in the sea and keep it a secret forever. One year later, an anonymous note (hence the film's title) convinces them that someone else knows their secret. The four teens soon find that their stalker uses an ice hook to make his point.
At first, "I Know What You Did Last Summer" seems smarter than it actually is. The characters are incredibly obnoxious, especially Barry, a selfish and aggressive jock who seems to deserve death. Helen is a bubble-head, Ray broods a lot, and Julie has little to recommend her but a conscience. For a few brief seconds, when Barry sticks his head out a speeding car and howls like the drunken party animal he is, the movie promises to take a fittingly critical view of its protagonists. In the end, however, we're supposed to actually like these unpleasant people.
The movie attempts to cash in on the meta-horror craze started by "Scream" and anteceded by the early films of Wes Craven ("A Nightmare on Elm Street") and Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead"). Movies in this genre employ all the elements of slasher flicks while simultaneously acknowledging those elements with a wry smile. It's a filmic denial, somewhat equivalent to Magritte's famous epigram: "Ceci n'est pas une horror film." This isn't a horror film but an iconic representation of a horror film.
Such movies can be amusing -- for a minute -- but they must fall back on their own merits eventually. "Scream" succeeded because Wes Craven is a smart and sadistic director who can still draw fresh blood from a dried-out formula. "I Know What You Did Last Summer" fails because it has little humor or creativity. With its trendy soundtrack and bouncy-breasted heroines, the movie is little more than matinee fare for bored teens with low expectations.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Rating: * *
Four teens are haunted by a mistake from their past. Starring Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. Directed by Jim Gillespie. Rated R, playing in area movie theaters.