Sinister Summer 2020 “I know What You Did Last Summer” Retrospective

Keep your eyes on the road or else you may find yourself running from a meathook-handed serial killer. While this movie has not seen the legacy and timeless influence that Scream has, there is still a lot to like if you are a slasher fan or simply enjoy the excellent chemistry in our lead ensemble cast in this incredibly fun slasher movie. It’s been 24 years since I Know What You Did Last Summer convinced us to pay attention to the roadway at night after our July 4th celebrations; interestingly, this is consistently one of those 90s horror movies that is either loved or despised. Won’t find much middle ground here. Personally, this ranks highly for me when talking 90s horror. While this movie has not seen the legacy and timeless influence that Scream has, there is still a lot to like if you are a slasher fan or simply enjoy the excellent chemistry in our lead ensemble cast. For instance, we would not have Scary Movie if it wasn’t for I Know and Scream, we may not have the Hash Slinging Slasher from Spongebob Square Pants.  Sure, if you think too much about the plot, it falls apart, but isn’t that the case with many slashers? Everything from the twists and turns, to the suspense, to the red herrings, a murderer screaming “you’ve got no place to hide,” not to mention the classic horror score, deliver a movie that is fun to watch, highly entertaining, and even rewatchable.

Last summer, a group of four partying teenagers accidentally strike a fisherman in the middle of the road. But instead of alerting the police, they dump his body in the ocean to cover up their crime as they all go their separate ways after high school. This summer, one of the friends receives a letter confronting them with the crime—I know what you did last summer. While tracking down the author of the letter, one of the secret-sharing group of friends is ironically run over by a man with a meat hook. The terror only increases from there, as the killer with the hook continues to stalk the rest of the friends.

While many horror movies take place around Halloween, other holidays have their own share including Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, and even the 4th of July, which brings us to day’s Sinister Summer selection! While I love to watch Jaws every July 4th, I also enjoy rewatching, the quintessential 90’s slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer. Written by Scream co-writer Kevin Williamson, directed by Jim Gillespie, starring a then-allstar cast including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Junior, and Ryan Phillippe. Despite the R-rating, the violence is quite minimal in this movie, and that’s what I want to highlight here. One of the most telltale elements of most 80s/90s slashers is the entertaining, explicit, and even campy gore! Surprisingly, you won’t find a prolific amount of gore and violence in I Know but the implied violence works very well to drive up the tension and suspense as we try to solve the mystery of the identity of the hook-handed slasher before all the friends meet their demise.

While some horror movies are just plain scary, this one provides audiences with a story that is worth investing time and interest. There’s nothing supernatural about the scares in this movie, there’s nothing particularly grotesque either, and the atmosphere is not inordinately creepy or ominous. The real horror in I Know is not the meat-hooked slasher, but the helplessness of our central characters. Moreover, each of them feels completely helpless as they desperately try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. It’s one part serial killer and one part mystery. There is a ticking timebomb plot device employed in this movie, which translates to a race against the clock at the night of the 4th of July approaches. One by one, the slasher dressed in a rainslicker and fishing hat is picking off our high school friends as the anniversary of the inciting incident comes to pass. Often this movie gets compared to Scream and found to be wanting; however, this is an unfair comparison because there isn’t any movie (especially from this decade) that will be as good as Scream. Some people forget that Williamson wrote both Scream and IKWYDLS. But if this movie is looked at of its own accord and not in comparison with the decade-defining Scream, then it is able to be recognized as the classic that it actually is.

Believe it or not, there is a hidden strength in the story that rarely gets talked about. It’s a great psycho-social commentary on perception as reality and the cognitive elopement of a young adult. Moreover, I Know’s real genius is in how it confronts each of the lead cast with questions that all of us ask ourselves. It functions very well as a study of every individual teen’s mental state. Just like the characters in the movie, we (the audience) are wondering exactly who can be trusted. The central themes in this movie center in and around concepts such as: if you make a mistake, you should own up to it or else it will grow to haunt you; you will never forget a grave mistake you made, and should instead confess it; and if you now the right then to do, then you should do it. In summary, each of these posited ideas can be traced back to varying degrees of self-centeredness. Knowing who to trust, self-centeredness, and whether to stand up and fight or flee are all ideas that are such a part of growing up during the transition from teenager to young adult. Fortunately, this movie does a brilliant job of exploring these ideas through the vessel of a slasher. Whether in this movie or in real life, if you do not address your past, it will most certainly come back to haunt you. There is also a clear message of not driving while intoxicated; again, something that some young people struggle with and most assuredly encounter or perhaps are tempted to do.

It really doesn’t get anymore 90s than this movie. And perhaps that contributes to why it is looked at with more disdain than with fondness. While Scream takes place in the mid-90s, Williamson’s script and Wes Craven’s direction give it a timelessness that works even 24 years later. From the costume designs to soundtrack to the teenage angst, there is so much mid-90s in this movie. And unfortunately, much of that does not hold up; however, this movie should be seen as a product of its time. I mean, if for no other reason, we ALL know what you did last summer because it’s all over your social media. No longer does that accusation hold much threat.

Before you dismiss all of the plot and design elements and dialogue as unable to transcend the decades, I want to highlight a few elements that do. One of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lines about her boyfriend Ray delivered while they are on the beach at night, “we can’t all sit in a Village coffee house and ramble esoterically on a laptop” could have very well come from a more recent slasher movie. The movie’s even ahead of its time in regards to the present socio-political climate in which we find ourselves, [referring to the slasher’s weapon] “the hook is really a phallic symbol, ultimately castrated.” And who doesn’t love the flagship, quotable line of “what are you waiting for, huh, what are you waiting for???” This line worked great then, and continues to hold up almost as well as “do you like scary movies?” Williamson certainly knows how to pen a line of dialogue that completely defines the movie.

When on one hand, it should be easy to dismiss this movie as a Scream ripoff, the movie saves itself from being completely dismissed because it knew precisely what it was, and unapologetically rocked it.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” horror movie review

Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! Don’t let the August release date fool you, this is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive. Ghost stories are such a part of our childhood and teenage years, and this film explores the idea of these stories coming to life. A terrifying prospect. Despite the one-dimensional characters, this movie keeps the audience engaged because of the incredibly fun plot and nightmarish visuals. And no, the end of the movie is not tied up with a nice little bow. Traditional narratives follow: order–>disorder–>order again, but horror often takes on an order–>disorder–>order–>disorder path. While there are elements in this movie that may predispose you to thinking that it’s an anthology like Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it is one linear narrative. Scary Stories is  thoughtful horror movie that is a throwback to the tales of old, when hauntingly spooky was more important than grisly gore.

Pennsylvania 1968 on Halloween, and change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley, where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion, on the edge of town, that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories she passed along to children whom would talk to her through the wall of her foreboding mansion. In addition to passing down the stories orally, she wrote them down in book that truly immerses the reader into the terrifying plot. When a group of teenagers accidentally stumbles onto Sarah’s book of scary stories to tell in the dark, they realize that these stories are become all too real, and they find themselves strapped in the pages of these stories that transcend time and reality.

On one hand, this movie may appear overly generic to the casual observer, given the chief elements that make up the story. You have a group of misfit teens in small town middle America, lots of period nostalgia (that is thankfully not even more of the already proliferated 80s), a cursed object that torments its readers, and a haunted house. Everything that a writer needs to create a forgettable horror movie that goes directly to streaming services is here. But that is where you would be wrong to presume it is just another generic haunted house movie. The premise may not be exuding originality but the expression of the premise is. Combine the original expression of a plot template with the stunning visuals that we’ve come to expect from the del Toro brand, and you have one fantastic horror movie. Clearly exhibited in each and every scene, there are many signs that this movie was built by writers and a director who cares about the story and the audience experience. The degree to which this haunted house movie works for audiences may one day be seen in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. So many visual elements in this movie lend it to a haunted house (definitely more than the upcoming Us haunted house). Even if you did not grow up reading the Scary Stories books, you probably read Goosebumps or watch the TV version of the former or Are You Afraid of the Dark? and that is all you need to know or be familiar with. Go in with a love of good old-fashioned ghost stories, and you will have a fun time.

This is the second gateway horror movie that we have seen in the last couple years. Last year, we had The House with a Clock in its Walls, which worked as a gateway horror movie (albeit less so than this one). Ever since the TV shows referenced earlier went off the air, there has been a need for PG and PG-13 horror for younger audiences that also appeals to adults. Most of the horror movies over the last couple of decades have large been aimed at older teens and adults. The trick is to write a story that is appropriate enough for general 12-17 viewers, but still contain the macabre elements that 18+ viewers want to see. And that doesn’t mean gore, it means a thoughtful approach to crafting a fun horror movie that genuinely frightens you. Spooky atmospheres, ghostly apparitions, and tormented characters have been a staple of the American horror film from the days of Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. But in recent years, haunting production design and memorable monsters have taken backseat to schlock fests. This movie seeks to bring back the old fashioned haunted house ghost movie to foster an appetite in young audiences for the fantastic world of horror.

The central character and our character of opposition are two opposite sides of the same coin. Driving their decisions is a love of storytelling and family issues. Of course the familial issues differ greatly, but they complement one another nicely. When developing central and opposition characters, it’s important for the screenwriter to remember that often both characters need to share some common traits, and even common goals, but the difference is in how that desire to achieve the goal is expressed through action. There appears to be ab attempts by the movie to provide opportunities for the characters and plot to comment on the society and politics, but it’s never fully developed. Underscoring many of the scenes in the film is the 1968 presidential election and the controversial Vietnam War. I feel that the socio=political elements were not used as effectively as they could have been, so it would have been better just to leave them out as those moments don’t add anything to the overall story.

The power of story. It was Cecil B. DeMille who stated that the “greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Scary Stories takes its cue from the timeless words from a  Hollywood great. Films were always about breaking ground in visual technical marvel, the almost oxymoronic photorealistic animation, or grisly violence; they were about telling stories. Not unlike the ones that got orally passed down. And these stories helped to shape generations of current and future storytellers. When you tell a story enough, it begins to have a life of its own, there is a place for some evil to be contained as we creatively explore the human condition, sexuality, gender roles, faith, psychology, and sociology through the American horror film. We already have a movie about what happens when the stories die (see my article on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), so this one takes the approach of what happens when you steel someone’s storybook but pairs that with the healing power of storytelling. To get into how and why would reveal too much about the showdown of the movie, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. At the end of the movie, you are left with wondering about the stories that you have passed down, and power to terrify or to heal that comes along with them. You may even find yourself wanting to get a group of friends together to tell ghost stories.

If you love a good ghost story, then you definitely want to catch this while in theatres to truly appreciate and experience the nightmarish visuals of the monsters and the beauty of the production design. Get into the Halloween spirit a little early with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as you enjoy a throwback to a more classical approach to the American horror film.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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