It’s a big night for Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), or rather her best friend Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who is competing in the South Port annual beauty pageant. Julie watches from the balcony with her boyfriend Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr) and Helen’s boyfriend Barry (Ryan Philippe) as they look on in rapt attention, and to their delight she claims the prize, giving her acceptance speech about how she plans to go on to acting and be a big star. But all four of them have big dreams and cannot see a thing that will get in their way, so at the town celebration they all have a fun time – aside from the interruption from Max (Johnny Galecki) who carries a torch for Julie, and almost starts a fight with the drunken Barry. But the night will hold far worse than a scuffle…
Once Wes Craven’s Scream was the unexpected blockbuster it turned out to be, Hollywood knew a bandwagon when they saw it and jumped to cash in, so seeing as how there was an unproduced script by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson going around, Columbia snapped it up and rushed I Know What You Did Last Summer into production with a selection of fashionable young talent of the late nineteen-nineties filling the main roles. It seemed at the time that Williamson had thought his mega-success was all very well, but now he was going to take what he had spoofed there very seriously here, though that wasn’t the case, since the I Know script had been penned before Scream, but nevertheless it did see this at a disadvantage.
Therefore it has always been in the shadow of the more celebrated horror franchise, and an even more rushed sequel (along with a straight to DVD effort after that) ensured nobody was going to put it in their top ten slashers. Not helping was Lois Duncan, who had written the source novel, went public in her issues with what Williamson had done to her story, turning it into a slasher movie when her work was more of a thriller for teens that featured nobody getting a hook through their head; understandably, Duncan was resistant to such treatment of murder after her own daughter was shot to death in an unsolved killing. So you can see how business like that might take the edge off I Know, and that fact it was derivative was little help.
But if you could put all that to one side, director Jim Gillespie did deliver a slick, handsome-looking chiller that emphasised a particular trait in its lead characters: failure. And more than that, the consequences of failure, for it opens not with the pageant, but with a scene of a young man contemplating suicide, sitting on top of a cliff and about to throw himself off. As if this deep gloom was infectious, he passes it on to those who manage to kill him anyway when after a spot of raucousness the four pals run him over on a twisting coastal road, and make up their minds to cover up the accident by dumping the victim’s body in the sea off the docks. Oh dear, though, as just as they are trying to push him in, he wakes up – and they push him in anyway, turning a tragedy into murder.
It should be pointed out the virtuous Julie did not participate in the dumping of the supposed corpse, and it was she who wanted to go to the police and explain, but there’s no way they can do that now without ruining their chances of a settled life. Ironically, that’s precisely what happens as we jump to one year later and none of the four are successes, in fact they’re all underachievers and apparently headed for a depressing existence that suicide might be looming over. Except someone decides to do the deed for them when they start receiving notes saying “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER!” and threatening murder upon them, which was where the slasher angle came in. Although aside from one crowbarred-in killing, not until well into the final act, as the sinister fisherman villain opts to toy with them which might leave some slasher fans impatient. Still, designing this as a mystery first and horror movie second wasn’t such a bad approach, and the ambiguity about how far we were supposed to sympathise with the quartet lent grit to a fair shocker. Music by John Debney (with too many bad cover versions).