It's the Fourth of July, and Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt, TV's "Party of Five"), Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and Barry (Ryan Phillippe) are intent on celebrating their graduation from high school, which, for them, means driving to a secluded beach, getting drunk, telling ghost stories and making out with each other. But later that evening, on the way back to town, they accidentally hit a man with their car, apparently killing him. After thinking things through, the group reluctantly decides to dump the body in the sea, and swear to take the secret of what they did that night to their graves. One year later, a still guilt-ridden Julie returns from college to her hometown, and finds an incriminating message in the mail: somebody knows what they did last summer. After rounding up her circle of former friends, she tries to figure out who alive could have seen them leave a man for dead. But the events surrounding the accident may be more complicated than any of them had originally thought.
Last year, screenwriter Kevin Williamson came out of nowhere with 'Scream, a self-referential satire on the teen slasher oeuvre wrapped warmly in classic Wes Craven thrills. Unexpectedly, but deservedly, a surprise runaway box office success followed. Based on the reception of his feature debut, and before Craven and the folks at Dimension came knocking for a 'Scream' sequel (due out this winter), Williamson took it upon himself to bring author Lois Duncan's novel 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' to the big screen. The end product is a decent teen slasher film, but one can't help feeling that Williamson missed a big chance to send up traditional horror archetypes once more.
As the world of 'Last Summer' wasn't originally Williamson's own creation, it's to be expected that the film not be strung through with the same knowing streak of humour that was the driving force behind 'Scream'. Or maybe it's just that Williamson had grown tired of the same old jokes, and opted to shun them out of 'Last Summer' altogether. But through opting to stay within the lines for his latest film, Williamson has gutted what made his first so special. Sadly, 'Last Summer' does not stand apart from the crowd of horror films that Kevin Williamson so skilfully mocked ten months ago. That said, this is perhaps the first slasher film to come out since 'Scream', and, against the odds, this serves to the film's advantage, as it's almost quite enjoyable watching the clichés play out in front of you exactly as predicted.
Ironically, British director Jim Gillespie ('Joyride'), in his first Hollywood production, has made a good effort to mimic the works of Wes Craven, specifically with the commanding score by John Debney. Marco Beltrami's work on 'Scream' is the template used by Debney here, and the versatile composer manages to accentuate the tension well, despite signalling some of the scares. However, Gillespie makes the mistake of depicting the death scenes too graphically. Gore could have been used well in 'Last Summer', but Gillespie leaves the camera rolling for too long during the vicious attacks on the killer's victims, which end up more repulsive than anything. Gillespie ain't no Craven, that's for sure.
The cast (or should I say group of attractive teens that are waiting to be offed?) also seem to be taking this project a little too unsmilingly, with actors Freddie Prinze Jr. and Ryan Phillippe more concerned with trying to see which one of them can ham it up the most than actually developing characters worth caring about. Jennifer Love Hewitt is decent enough here, but her performance never fully convinces. It's up to Sarah Michelle Gellar to strap ably into "damsel in distress" mode (something that the actress should know about, starring on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" week after week), and does more than necessary to make the audience truly feel for Helen Shivers as she laments her shattered dreams. Jamie Lee Curtis, you might want to keep an eye on your Scream Queen coronet.
The final act of the film is hard to resist, as it stages a series of nice set pieces that keep you close to the edge of your seat at all times, right up to the agreeably trite, sequel-friendly ending. But Williamson needs to learn how to wean the parody away from his screenplays without completely robbing them of any innovativeness. I admire the man for not repeating himself, but he seems to have progressed right into a career corner with 'Last Summer'. 'Scream 2' will most likely return him to the top of the pyramid once again, but I'd rather not think about what might happen after that.