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Yes, slasher films have their own moral codes, which tend to be arbitrary ways to let the audience at least subconsciously view the killer as a protagonist. But I Know What You Did Last Summer doesn’t tarry in debates over such questions as “Is having sex sufficient justification to be eviscerated by a man in a hockey mask?” In each incarnation of I Know What You Did Last Summer since that first feature, the main characters killed somebody, or at least were accessories to murder, and their process of covering up said crime in order to protect their own lives makes them worthy of some measure of punishment, even if that punishment isn’t necessarily quite on the level of being run through with a harpoon. Quibble with his methodology, but the main tormenter is close to the hero of I Know What You Did Last Summer. And the villain? Well, it’s teenage self-absorption.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Airdate: Friday, Oct. 15
Cast: Madison Iseman, Bill Heck, Brianne Tju, Ezekiel Goodman, Ashley Moore, Sebastian Amoruso, Fiona Rene, Cassie Beck, Brooke Bloom
Creator: Sara Goodman; based on the novel by Lois Duncan
So if anybody wants to know why Duncan’s novel needed another semi-adaptation in 2021, much less one stretched over eight episodes on Amazon, the answer is simple: Teenagers may have been clueless in 1973 and 1997, but they didn’t have Instagram, which makes those retro-adolescents practically paragons of philanthropy in comparison. Amazon’s I Know What You Did Last Summer is only somewhat about Instagram, on a purely practical level, but it takes the myopia exhibited in previous versions of the story to an extreme.
To get coarse about it — and this new version is as coarse as walking barefoot through a beach filled with broken glass — the series examines how, when you live somewhere up your own self-obsessed butt, you can cease being able to truly see yourself, much less your closest friends. It also explores whether being tormented by an unseen killer is a valid path to self-actualization.
This new take absolutely has an angle all its own, and a justification for retelling this story. Does that mean it’s good? Nah. It’s marred by mediocre performances, some bad directing choices and an evasive approach to its chosen genre. But in its sea of logical flaws, it’s captivatingly confusing.
I’d explain, but I can’t. Although Amazon is releasing the first four episodes in one batch, and the hook of the show — not to be confused in any way with the physical hooks on which various characters in the film franchise meet their demise — is revealed at the end of the pilot, the streamer has requested that the twist not be revealed. I can abide by that, because it’s the best thing about the show, if simultaneously the dumbest.
To be oblique, I can say that Sara Goodman’s adaptation, like Kevin Williamson’s feature, takes only the general shape of Duncan’s book. We begin with Lennon (Madison Iseman) returning to her Hawaii home after her first year in college. Lennon is stressed out, and things are tense with her father (Bill Heck) and her friends Margot (Brianne Tju), Riley (Ashley Moore), Dylan (Ezekiel Goodman) and Johnny (Sebastian Amoruso). Does the tension have something to do with the decapitated goat’s head in Lennon’s closet and the ominous words “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER” scrawled on her mirror? Why, yes!
What they did last summer, shortly after they graduated from high school, is they killed somebody. But the circumstances behind the killing and the teens’ morally imperfect response to it are better left to surprise, or at least perplex, the audience. Suffice to say that somebody or something wants revenge.
Based on what they did last summer, Lennon, Margot, Riley, Dylan and Johnny are filled with a lot of internalized anxiety, and the series suffers from a similar unease. It’s a show that knows its core audience is going to be expecting slasher thrills, but it really doesn’t want to be a slasher show. So while the four episodes sent to critics have a mounting body count, the victims are dispatched in gruesome ways that are, with very limited exception, conducted entirely off-camera.
There’s something amusingly subversive in the way the show goes out of its way to deny gorehounds the memorable “kills” that define the genre. It’s gross at times, but never scary or suspenseful, and it’s more gratuitous in its treatment of sexuality (the grown-ups and teens are united in their kinkiness) and nudity than in its approach to violence. But as much as the series’ various directors leer over the young stars and their beach bods, unsightly and unexpected penises are featured more frequently.
That leering can also be justified thematically, because this is a saga of main characters who are ill prepared to harbor secrets after living their lives wholly exposed to the world. And the cast includes stars whose presence on social media goes far deeper than their IMDb listings. If their performances sometimes suffer from inexperience — well, that’s just part of the point, if you’re choosing to be generous.
Tju’s performance is loud and grating because the character is meant to be loud and grating, Goodman’s performance monotonously mopey because the character is monotonously mopey. And I’m not sure what Moore is playing, because Riley is written inconsistently from scene to scene. Iseman is having fun here, for reasons related to the thing I can’t spoil. She’s also at the center of the series’ biggest head-scratchers — but whether those are the product of writing or acting limitations, I don’t know.
Bad acting? Plot holes the size of the Big Island? It’s all in the game for a show that invites audiences to judge the main characters because they’re incapable of judging themselves. In that respect, isn’t the viewer by proxy the unseen killer wreaking havoc all over the place? That’s my way of saying not to expect anything as memorable or as silly as the Gorton’s Fisherman-looking psychopath from the films.
I’m more confident that I Know What You Did Last Summer represents a brutally opportunistic use of Hawaii, which has had nearly all its culture and ethnic diversity erased and replaced with a few pretty vistas and the occasional random ukulele song. Or is this still more meta-commentary, treating Hawaii like the main characters treat themselves, sacrificing soul for the superficial? So maybe Hawaii turns out to have been the killer all along?
It’s possible, of course, that all the rationalizations I’m finding are merely strained interpretations for things that are simply bad. When I had to rewind my screeners because key pieces of information were being poorly delivered or because I couldn’t tell which of several interchangeably bland teenage and adult actors were which, was it because of bad choices by pilot director Craig William Macneill, along with bad casting and bad editing? Or does the twist of the show rely on a certain amount of sleight of hand?
I Know What You Did Last Summer is compulsively bewildering. And even if it’s a reboot/remake/adaptation nobody exactly asked for, I can understand the morally playful purpose behind at least some of its watchable yet exasperating choices.
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