Frightening Friday: ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997) ushers in era of slicker, better-acted slashers (Movie review)

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cream” (1996) introduced a new era of slasher films by being brazenly self-referential, but also by having better production values and acting than the previous era defined by the “Halloweens,” “Friday the 13ths” and “Elm Streets.” The second major entry of this new era — “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997), likewise written by Kevin Williamson – doesn’t have many insider nods, but it keeps the quality high.

Based on a 1973 YA mystery novel by Lois Duncan, “IKWYDLS” draws from the “man with a hook hand” urban legend that we all heard in grade school, but Williamson and director Jim Gillespie mostly play it straight. The four recent grads try to scare each other with the legend around a beach bonfire, all of them telling it wrong. But that’s as far as the winks go.

“IKWYDLS” palpably shows the teens’ guilt and inability to get on with their post-school lives. This is a tense “what would you do?” fable.

Concluding a night of Fourth of July revelry in beautiful Southport, N.C., they accidentally run over a man on the highway. After debating among themselves, they opt to dump his body off a dock rather than call the police. Next summer, the now-morose teens try to figure out who is sending them threatening notes with excellent penmanship.

There’s only one way this can end, of course: With the man not being dead after all. But it’s not so cut and dried: The newspaper says he is dead. Heck, even the guy’s sister (Anne Heche in a sly turn as country gal Missy) confirms he is dead.

“IKWYDLS” has a better cast than any film of the previous slasher generation; even better than “Scream,” for that matter. Nineties cuties Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar share the screen for the only time as besties Julie and Helen, and heartthrobs Freddie Prinze Jr. and Ryan Phillippe play their respective boyfriends, Ray and Barry. (It’ll always seem weird that future spouses Gellar and Prinze don’t play a couple here.)

I recalled Prinze being the weak link of the cast, but on this viewing I didn’t find him distracting; the filmmakers give the dramatic scenes to the other three. I used to have trouble watching Gellar in damsel-in-distress roles, as it seems regressive compared to her “Buffy” work (Season 1 had aired at this point). But at least Julie leads the way in figuring out the puzzle, and Helen doesn’t go down to the Fisherman without a fight.

Before the final showdown on a boat – when the teens are let off the hook (so to speak) by learning they didn’t actually commit a murder – “IKWYDLS” palpably shows their guilt and inability to get on with their post-school lives. This is a tense “what would you do?” fable.

They all react a little differently, with Hewitt nicely displaying fear and paranoia – note Julie’s flinch at receiving that first note in the mail — that will carry into the first of the two sequels. Helen is a beauty queen who starts smoking and arguing with her older sister, Elsa (Bridgette Wilson). Barry’s hot-headedness is exacerbated, while Ray takes a dock job and broods about Julie. Even without knowing their backgrounds, we can tell this is a broken group of friends.

Duncan is on record as hating that her novel was made into a slasher film, and I can see her point. One could argue that the slasher elements are for the sake of post-“Scream” box office. But Gillespie crisply directs the Fisherman’s stalkings and kills, and the slasher stuff doesn’t overwhelm the mystery and paranoia that drives the events.

Among Williamson’s tremendous turn-of-the-century output, “IKWYDLS” is the least talked about, because it’s not a pop-culture (“Scream”) or societal commentary (“The Faculty”), or something personal (“Teaching Mrs. Tingle”). Sure, he draws from the hook-killer legend, and he can’t resist naming a location “Dawson’s Beach.” (His “Dawson’s Creek,” also filmed in North Carolina, would debut the next winter.)

“IKWYDLS,” in contrast to most of his work, is a straightforward mystery-slasher where the teens don’t show awareness that they’re in a cinematic situation. But it’s unusually well-acted and maybe even undervalued for keeping the production bar high for this wave of horror flicks.

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