Thoughts on “I Know What You Did Last Summer”

So, let me continue on with my plan to watch everything Jennifer Love Hewitt has ever done by talking about “I Know What You Did Last Summer”.  Well, okay, there isn’t really any kind of plan here, since this movie series is rather famous — and parodied in one of the “Scary Movies” movies — and so when I saw the three movies available in a pack for a decent price from a new used DVD store that I wandered into this past fall I obviously had to pick it up, and that Jennifer Love Hewitt was in it after I had watched her in “Party of Five”, “Time of Your Life”, “Ghost Whisperer” and “The Client List” was just a happy coincidence.  It probably did encourage me to put this series on the top of my stacks to watch when I reorganized them recently, though.

Anyway, the plot here is that four teens are partying on the Fourth of July and head out to the beach before heading off to what they hope will be great and wonderful lives, but on the way back they run into a man and seemingly kill him.  While Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Julie and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Helen and even Freddie Prinze Jr.’s Ray all at some point want to simply report it, the drunken — but not driving — owner of the car refuses because he figures that they won’t believe that Ray — who was sober — was driving and he’ll go to jail, and convinces the others that that will happen, and so they agree to cover it up.  As they do so, the “corpse” comes to life but they end up, in a panic, dumping the body in the water anyway.  One year later, Julie returns and gets a note saying “I know what you did last summer”, and then other things start to happen to them, including the jerk guy getting run over but not killed.  But as bodies start to pile up they have to figure out who is trying to kill them before they are all killed.

One thing that is interesting about this movie is that while other horror movies would have them have done the deed and then perhaps had Julie be the only character affected by it, this movie focuses on all of them being greatly impacted by what they did.  Julie, the smart girl, is failing out of school.  Helen, the beauty queen, has failed completely at being an actress.  The jerk is living well because his family is rich but it’s clear that he hasn’t done anything in that year.  And Ray is working as a fisherman and later notes that the guilt over what they did was getting to them.  It’s rare that a horror movie with this premise will focus so much on the guilt they themselves have felt, and even more rare that it would do that without ever really having that pay off (it’s a minor point in a red herring about who the killer is).  For the most part, it’s only used to allow Julie to act sanctimonious, and while Jennifer Love Hewitt is really, really good at acting sanctimonious they could have easily let her be that way without having all of them be guilty and making it clear that their lives and their relationships with each other were all destroyed by what happened.

The biggest flaw of the movie, however, is indeed that it seems to set things up that it never really pays off.  There’s a arc with Helen and the jerk getting back together that is ended by the two of them getting killed off.  There’s also a rivalry between Helen and her sister that is never really developed or paid off.  The subplot of Julie and Ray getting back together is never paid off either, along with the relationship between the killer and the body that was found, along with the issues with the guy who likes Julie and has been her friend for ages.  All of this is in the movie and even highlighted, but the movie doesn’t really do anything with it.

Now, one way to look at it is that these are people who have lives and other things than what is important for the plot, and doing it this way might help us see them as real people without cluttering the actual plot with these full details.  But the issue with doing that is that there’s not a lot of time in an hour and a half movie, and so you can’t take time developing thing that you don’t pay off.  This has been one of my main complaints about modern horror movies lately, is that they take up time that could be better used for other things.  While the idea of “Chekhov’s Gun” has been dissected to death, one of the main ideas behind it is that if you draw attention to something, you need to pay it off somehow because the audience will notice and remember it.  No matter what you do, if you don’t use things you draw the audience’s attention to — even if just as a red herring — the audience will notice and will at least be disappointed.

The thing is that here, in contrast to the other movies, all I felt at the end of the movie was some disappointment that these things weren’t fleshed out, developed and resolved in the movie.  Interestingly, I didn’t feel frustrated with the movie for setting these things up and not paying them off or resolving them like I did with the other movies.  The reason for that, I think, is that the premise here is simple enough that I don’t feel that the time spent on those things was wasted time.  Sure, they could have hinted more at who the killer really was — there aren’t really all that many clues about it in the movie itself — but I didn’t feel like it needed it, and so didn’t feel like it took too much time away from the main plot.  And while the elements are there and our attention is drawn to them, it’s also not the case that the movie itself makes all that big a deal of the elements.  They’re there, but nothing in the movie turns on them and it really seems like the movie just wanted the elements there and didn’t want to make them a big part of the plot.  That’s why I pointed out above that you could use such things to try to get us to think of the characters as real people with real concerns in an attempt to humanize them, as it seems to be part of their character but not part of the plot.  And that’s why I could feel disappointed rather than frustrated with those elements, as they don’t take away time that was needed for the plot and does create more human characters even if the elements aren’t paid off.

This movie is a prime example of what you can do when you come up with a basic premise, have good production values and get good performances from your actors.  There’s a lot of things I could nitpick about this movie, but it works well-enough that I don’t really want to do that.  In that sense, it’s a lot like “The Craft”, which also has a number of flaws but is overall good enough that I can look past them.  And so, like that movie, I am likely to watch this one again at some point.


6 Responses to “Thoughts on “I Know What You Did Last Summer””

  1. natewinchester Says:

    “Narrative law of conservation of detail” is the other way I heard it phrased. Aka: if it’s not useful to the story, cut it.

    Though with those films there’s no telling if some of that stuff was important once upon a time and got excised in an edit.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Reading about that specific trope on TV Tropes, I think that the driving force behind that Law is what modern movies forget. It’s not so much that you can’t do that, but that since you have less time to add details it really only makes sense to add the important ones. Modern movies tend to spend their time on things that they don’t really need to spend their time on and that they don’t pay off for whatever reason. Yes, this isn’t really a modern movie, but at least we can give a purpose to those scenes (humanizing them and giving space for the horror) and I STILL found it went on too long. Modern movies are even worse.

      The other part of this is that when we get used to how a media uses this we tend to make assumptions about how important something is and draw conclusions based on that. Shamus Young once commented on that when talking about the view that Ashley is racist against aliens in “Mass Effect”, noting that what she says — that she can’t tell the aliens from the animals — isn’t in and of itself racist and there’s not enough other evidence for her being racist, but when someone makes a semi-racist comment we tend to assume that there are lots of other examples that we just aren’t being shown, like when we see a parent yell at their kids for no reason we assume that they are abusive even though ALL parents do that on occasion, because we assume that the reason it is being shown is because we are meant to take away the idea that they do it all the time.

      • natewinchester Says:

        Fun little side note:

        Was watching that, and per the video maker, in the show Re:Creators the fictional characters find the real world to be sensory overload because of “conservation of detail” means something like the taste of a drink isn’t put into their stories unless it’s relevant. Chuckled when I heard that bit, looks like that show you may have to give a try sometime.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        That does sound interesting, so I’ll have to try to remember it when browsing around for things.

      • natewinchester Says:

        Oh yeah! And if you want an example of editing and stories…

        (his previous video on PT&A also goes over some of this)

        That’s kind of what I was talking about earlier that some point in IKWYDLS might have been explained or had a point originally, but then got edited out for the theatrical release. It’s one of the things I find fascinating about films and why I love channels like Hats’ Off Entertainment and GoodBadFlicks because they often put in work to run those extra scenes down and talk about them.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        When I talked about the original Friday the 13th movie I think it had that kind of editing out, but it worked out in a good way. There were things in the movie that looked like they were setting up a mystery around who the killer was — the jeep was the same as the one the head guy used and they show a scene of it once — but most of the hints were edited out and so at the end the killer come completely out of nowhere. But since the movie itself is edited to show that it itself doesn’t care about any of that, it works instead of coming across as being puzzling.

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