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A Slasher-Movie Bummer "Last Summer"

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  It would be entirely possible to make a compelling drama about four teenagers who accidentally run over a pedestrian and then hide the body. One could even imagine the gripping psychological suspense if, say, one year later the teens began receiving mysterious letters that implied someone knew their secret. But if that shadowy stranger were wearing a fisherman's slicker and brandishing a giant hook? Well, then you'd have your basic slasher flick--and you'd have lost all your drama and most of your suspense.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is a retro horror film, directed by Jim Gillespie and written by hot scribe Kevin Williamson, best known for his work on last year's surprise hit Scream. Williamson's shtick thus far has been to dress up old clichés in hip, ironic clothes. As much as critics and cineastes may have wanted to like Scream for its self-aware riffs on the slasher genre, the truth of the matter is that those riffs got repetitive quickly, and Scream's real appeal was its throwback shocks and gratuitous gore. It wasn't just about scary movies; it was a scary movie.

The same is true of Summer. Early in the film, our four protagonists (played by appealing young actors Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Ryan Phillippe) sit around a campfire and relate different versions of the old "escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand" urban legend. Late in the film, the police dredge the ocean for a body and pull up only a disembodied hand clutching a silver fishhook. In between these bits of pop-culture horseplay, the teens skulk around for clues to the identity of their tormentor and try to avoid being impaled.

There are some truly terrifying scenes in I Know What You Did Last Summer. One involves Anne Heche, who creeps around her ramshackle house in the country, mourning her dead brother and unnerving Hewitt and Gellar (who may be responsible for the brother's death). Another well-conceived set piece has a character being hacked to death in an alley while a parade marches down the street barely 20 feet away. This movie can be faulted for not properly exploring the psyches of the accidental killers, but never let it be said that it doesn't shock the audience.

The question, of course, is whether the shocks are worth it. My colleagues Donna Bowman and Jim Ridley have had a series of spirited debates about the merits of Scream and the slasher genre as a whole--Bowman regards the films with affection, while Ridley finds them cheap and misanthropic. For my part, I thought Scream was a kick, mainly because the characters were so cartoonish that their gruesome ends didn't bother me.

Clawing away Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, trying to figure out who's on to them in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Photo by James Bridges.

Generally, though, I've been uncomfortable defending slasher flicks ever since a college paper review of Nightmare on Elm Street 6 garnered a rebuke from an editor who vividly remembered a female student who was butchered in her dorm room. Although I think it's a dead end to connect screen violence and real violence--because the relationship is so hard to pin down--there comes a point when audience members should understand that they are watching ritual murder in the name of entertainment. I can't deny that I was frightened by I Know What You Did Last Summer. Nor can I deny that it left me feeling empty and queasy.

Frankly, horror is a depressing, nihilistic genre. After a Saturday double-feature of The Devil's Advocate and I Know What You Did Last Summer, I've been down in the dumps until, well, I started working on this review. If there must be a slasher revival, I suppose it's better that smart writers like Williamson are leading the way. I wish the filmmakers and the fans the best of luck, and I trust they can carry on without me.--Noel Murray

Angels in the outhouse

Angels may not respond to every voice in need, but they'll certainly answer a screenwriter's prayers. Any time a character gets into an unresolvable jam--whether it's George Bailey contemplating suicide in It's a Wonderful Life, or Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy launching himself off a high rise--an angel can appear to reverse time, rewrite history, raise the dead, and generally caulk any gaping cracks in the narrative. No wonder they're so hip these days. They're the perfect New Age panacea--the '90s equivalent of a shmoo.

You can gauge the implausibility of a movie by the number of angels required to fix the plot. Wings of Desire is an exception--a movie with Bruno Ganz and Peter Falk as angels has no credibility problems. But for most movies, having more than one supernatural agent of change is asking for trouble. It's a Wonderful Life needs only one; Angels in the Outfield needs a whole outfield. It's a bad sign, then, when A Life Less Ordinary opens with an entire office building full of seraphim.

In this curio, a baffling mix of romantic fantasy, hyperbolic melodrama, and screwball comedy, a heavenly precinct commander (Dan Hedaya) dispatches two agents to earth to bring together two destined lovers: Robert (Ewan McGregor), a daydreaming janitor in a vast corporation, and Celine (Cameron Diaz), the jaded daughter of the corporation's owner (Ian Holm). When Robert loses his job, he unexpectedly retaliates by kidnapping Celine. The father seeks revenge; the two angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo) pose as bounty hunters and accept his assignment to track down the future lovebirds.

But ya know, if the angels have all that heavenly omniscience, why do they need to be hired at all? Why do their schemes even backfire, when they can anticipate exactly where the lovebirds are headed and how they'll respond? And if angels are spirits, can they be killed or not? These questions should be answered long before you add your first angel to the mix, even if you're making a madcap farce--especially if you're making a madcap farce, which depends on strict rules of character, behavior, and incident. But the angels--like the mad dentist, the cabin with the survivalist neighbors, the bank robbery, and the big karaoke dance number--are just whimsical indulgences that mirror something from the filmmakers' moviegoing past. Once Hunter and Lindo start toting machine guns and rigging attempted murders, you realize director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge will have to employ every celestial host in that building to patch their scrapheap of a plot.

The ramshackle plotting, self-conscious quirks, and inconsistent characters may make A Life Less Ordinary a failure, but at least it's not a dull failure. McGregor's charm remains thoroughly winning, a few oddball gags hit their target, and the karaoke number to "Beyond the Sea" is actually a balmy delight. It's even sort of fun to watch Holly Hunter overact this broadly, although I'm still wondering why she switches from a raspy Walter Brennan imitation to La Femme Nikita. In most other respects A Life Less Ordinary reflects a cinematic truth: The more angels you add to a script, the likelier you are to wind up with an unholy mess.--Jim Ridley

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