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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Film Review of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (1997)

A quartet of teenagers in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (*** out of ****) go for a joyride after dark on July fourth, accidentally hit a pedestrian, and then try to cover up their crime. This refreshingly well-written but grisly thriller about a sadistic slayer, the hapless teen victims, and a bloody fishhook has more going for it than you might expect. The success of “Scream” has whetted the appetites of both moviemakers and audiences for more entries in the teen slasher genre. Happily, “I Know” provides all the usual thrills and chills of “Scream,” but bristles with better plot twists, more calculating characters, a dynamic villain, and a slam-bang finale in the tradition of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” Unhappily, first-time feature film director Jim Gillespie suppresses the more literate points in Kevin Williamson’s inventive, psychological script to promote the more commercial elements of guts, gore, and gruesomeness.

Set in a cozy North Carolina fishing hamlet, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” chronicles the exploits of Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry William Cox (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) on a final summer fling before they either leave for college or get real jobs. Leggy, good-looking Helen wins a local beauty pageant, and the teens party hardy on a lonely stretch of beach with the surf crashing in the background. When they aren’t concocting campfire tales about a crafty killer, they’re doing dirty deeds in the dunes. Binge-drinking Barry gets too sloshed to drive his shiny new BMW so tee-totalling Ray takes the wheel. On the way home, Barry’s berserk drinking antics distract Ray. Suddenly, before Ray can swerve, a man steps in front of the headlights. Smashing into the guy, the car careens to a halt, and the teens find his bloody body in a ditch. Too freaked out to verify his death or alert the authorities, our protagonists argue briefly before they deposit the body in the briny deep. They hope for the best, but their efforts only yield the worst.

Julie, Helen, Barry, and Ray make a pact: they will carry their secret to the grave. Little do they realize how appropriately deadly such a vow turns out for them. Gradually, these best friends grow apart. A year after the incident, Julie suffers the most trauma from the collision. Reluctantly, she comes home for the summer and receives the shock of her life. An anonymous letter addressed to her contains the simple but devastating message: “I know what you did last summer.” Guilt grips her like an icy cold fist. Julie wants to call the police despite the consequences. Instead, she allows herself to be argued down, and she fears now that her life may be the price of her silence. Scary things start to happen. Helen, who treasured her long blonde hair, awakens one morning to find her golden tresses shorn and a threat scrawled in lipstick on her bedroom mirror. The cocksure Barry loses his football letter jacket, and the killer runs Barry’s automobile down into the jock’s own house. Finally, Julie discovers a body packed in the trunk of her car. Barry suspects that Ray is the villain.

Meanwhile, the clear-minded Julie tries to identify the guy they hit. Helen and Julie take a trip into the sticks. They visit Melissa Egan (Anne Heche of “Donny Brasco”) who lives alone and spends most of her day carving up dead farm animals. According to newspaper reports, the body of Melissa’s brother washed up not long after the hit and run, but the police attribute the boy’s death to drowning. Our heroines want to find out if Melissa’s brother might have had a vigilante for a friend. Once again the incriminating finger points at Ray. If “I Know” appears to imitate “Scream,” scenarist Kevin Williamson receives both the blame and the credit. After all, he wrote both movies. He has as much fun here bashing those eerie old campfire tales as he had busting slasher movies in “Scream.” The film opens with a legitimate, real-life predicament before it degenerates into an adrenalin gouge-and-gut thriller. These teens worry more about contacting the authorities than they do about disposing of a body. Not only has Williamson penned a tense, entertaining script, he has also pressed a few politically correct buttons. The movie suggests that only the worst things can happen when teens drink and drive. The peer pressure that teenagers endure is rampant, and they must take responsibility for their actions. Director Gillespie pushes most of these worthwhile didactic themes into the shadows.

The “I Know Who You Killed Last Summer” villain dresses in high sinister fashion as a fisherman. Attired in an oilskin slicker, rubber boots, and a southwester, he looks like a duster-clad cowboy from a spaghetti western crossed with “Star War” villain Darth Vader. The chilling quality of the masquerade is that we never see whose face lurks behind the disguise, and we never hear his voice. The huge diabolical fishhook that our fiend brandishes makes lugging corpses around on its curved, wicked point look relatively easy. Williamson has created an original killer with a theatrical sense of style. Many slasher movie villains have their own musical theme that announces their presence. The “I Know” villain fiddles with one of his villain’s trinkets. The distinctive sound that it produces not only serves as the killer’s leitmotif, but also apprises us of the fiend’s presence.

Little can be said about the rest of the story without blowing its impact. Gillespie and Williamson save the big revelation near the end, and it’s something that you’ll never guess. Meanwhile, Gillespie deploys all those staple slasher movie subterfuges to distract audiences from figuring out the story ahead of time. Although the murders show moderate amounts of blood, the filmmakers want to shock rather than sicken. Gillespie stages each death with dramatic emphasis as well as a little irony. Disemboweled body parts are for the most part left off-screen to enliven the imagination. One character nearly reaches safety before the fisherman eviscerates her in an alley not more than movie subterfuges to distract audiences from figuring out the story ahead of time. Although the murders show moderate amounts of blood, the filmmakers want to shock rather than sicken. Gillespie stages each death with dramatic emphasis as well as a little irony. Disemboweled body parts are for the most part left off-screen to enliven the imagination. One character nearly reaches safety before the fisherman eviscerates her in an alley not more than ten feet from a marching band parading down the street.

A cast of unknowns credibly acquits itself. Hewitt brings a richly textured vulnerability to Julie. Caught between doing what is right and what her teenage friends think is right creates a painful dilemma for her that everybody has confronted. As much as Julie wants to believe that going to the police was the appropriate thing to do, she realizes that the smart thing now is to kill their killer before they die. As Helen, Gellar (looking a lot like Mira Sorvino) plays a wiser-than-average bimbo. The rivalry between Helen and her sister Elsa is one of the film’s neater nuances. Phillippe vividly captures the snobbish attitude of his star football character Barry who refuses to let anybody intimidate him, while Prinze as Ray is the least interesting but more heroic of the foursome. As Benjamin Willis, Muse Watson of “Sommersby” never needs worry about being cast as a hard-bitten character in future movies.

“I Know What You Did Last Summer’ generates more than enough action, suspense and horror. Credit goes to British lenser Denis Crossman. His dark, haunting photography, and the placement of his cameras enhance the horror. John Debney’s electrifying music score whips up just the right amount of frenzy to put you on the edge of your seat for the jolt and volts that Gillespie conjures up. This is the kind of movie where the women in the audience will scream because things jump out from nowhere to frighten them.

Minor problems afflict the film. Some dialogue gets drowned out by the music and the sound effects. The red herring subplot involving a pathetic looking backwoods girl seems incredibly preposterous. The fisherman villain may be the cleanest stalker in film history. Nobody can ever tell where he has struck, and the victims are literally kept on ice.

If you enjoy good scary movies, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” surpasses even the classic slashes, so you should not be disappointed. Enough surprises occur in the story to keep you guessing when you aren’t feeling paranoid. The evil fisherman is destined to take a place in the pantheon of movie murderers. Expect fisherman costumes to appear in the next year’s Halloween sales. Homicide has acquired a fresh look! In the tradition of “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, “I Know What You Did Last summer” unleashes a shocker ending that paves the way for an inevitable sequel.

FILM REVIEW OF ''TOPKAPI'' (1964)

Connecticut-born, HUAC blacklisted, director-in-exile Jules Dassin of “Brute Force” fame pokes fun at his earlier crime caper movie “Rififi” (French-1955) with “Topkapi,” a leisurely, light-hearted lark about an elaborate crime set in Constantinople in the early 1960s loosely based on an Eric Ambler’s novel “Light of Day.” “Topkapi” (**** out of ****) qualifies as one of the top ten heist capers of all time. Mind you, the filmmakers had to abide by the censorship rules of the day which dictated that crime could not pay. Adroitly, they skirt the issue so that realism never intrudes too serious on their amoral shenanigans. The actual heist itself is a breath-taking. Naturally, later filmmakers would imitate it.

Larcenous Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri of “Never On Sunday”) must steal a priceless sultan’s jewel-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul. She induces a former lover, Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell of “Avalanche Express”), to plot the operation. A Swiss native who’s the epitome of efficiency and urbanity, Walter lays down several ground rules that he forces Elizabeth to accept. He demands that their accomplices all be amateurs without criminal records. Since they have no criminal records, they should be able to elude the world’s best policemen. He stipulates the three cardinal rules of thief. First, plot meticulously. Second, execute cleanly. Third, don’t get caught before, during, or afterward. Indeed, Walter doesn’t want anybody with a criminal record as a participant.

The first conspirator that Walter recruits is portly Cedric Page (Robert Morley of “Beat the Devil”) who is a genius with all things mechanical. He creates all sorts of toys in his studio, including a cute, little mechanical dog that walks and barks. He has a facsimile of a parrot that records voices and plays them back. He explains to Elizabeth and Walter that the museum boasts a complex alarm system. If you so much as bounce a ping-pong ball on the museum floor, it will trigger their sophisticated alarm system. Clearly, stealing the dagger cannot be accomplished with the usual smash and grab tactics of conventional crime thriller.

Instead, Walter concocts an intricate plan for entering the museum without touching off the alarms and he brings in a strong man, Hans Fisher (Jess Hahn of “Bad Man’s River”), and an aerial artist Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles S├ęgal of “Without Apparent Motive”), who work together in tandem. Rather than enter the museum in the obvious, ordinary way, the thieves plan to ascend from the roof. Next, Walter pulls in a con artist, Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov), a small potatoes thief who takes advantage of tourists and looks for schmucks. Elizabeth and Walter hire him to take a Lincoln convertible across the border to Istanbul and leave the keys for a Mrs. Plimpton. Arthur is likeable enough because he is a bumbling thief. He is so cretinous that he doesn’t even realize that his Egyptian passport has expired so that when he tries to pass through customs, the Turks detain him, point out his expired passport, and then thoroughly search his automobile and discover a dismantled rifle and several grenades.

Initially, they accuse Arthur of being a terrorist, but he convinces them that he hasn’t a terrorist bone in his ample torso. The authorities accept his explanation that he is just ferrying the car across the border, but they still insist that he is part of a terrorist plot to kill their leaders in an important day not far off called Army Day. The Turkish authorities agree to release Arthur as long as he serves as their informant. They instruct him in how to pass messages to them without his bosses knowing about his perfidy. They tell him to hide his messages in a cigarette package that is empty and throw it away as litter and their agents shadowing him in a Volkswagen will retrieve them. Reluctantly, in over his head more than he could have imagined, Arthur has to go along with their plan.

The beauty of Danischewsky’s screenplay is the way she creates obstacles that not only the thieves but also the authorities encounter. Once Arthur delivers the car, he has no reason to continue as part of Walter’s well-thought out scenario. The authorities refuse to let Cedric drive the car because he is neither the owner nor does he have a driver’s license. Only the owner or a qualified driver, the police explain, can drive the car in Turkey. Cedric calls on Arthur and Walter has a new knot in his plan that he doesn’t like but must unravel for the success of the heist. The authorities are constantly on the tails of our thieves. Plans go further awry when Jess tries to get tough with Arthur and Arthur slams Jess’s hands in an iron grate, ruining them. Originally, the heist called for Jess to use his enormous strength to hold the ropes that they planned to use to suspend Giulio from the roof of the museum. The suspense escalates when Arthur accidentally reveals that the Turks suspect them of being terrorists, not thieves. Furthermore, the Turks—who keep them under constant surveillance—have taken many photos of them, only to learn that none of these people have a criminal dossier!

Dassin’s wife Melina Mercouri toplines a top-drawer cast, including a hilarious Peter Ustinov who received not only the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but also copped the Golden Laurel award, along with similar Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination. Scenic and suspenseful and shot on actual locations, this spine-tingling tale about several intrepid thieves is a delight to watch, unless you are afflicted with attention-deficit-syndrome. Like its intricate crime, “Topkapi” spins out a lot of plot in “Battle of the Sexes” scenarist Monja Danischewsky’s screenplay that adds one character to Ambler’s original story and shuffles the others in order of priority. Nevertheless, you’ll quickly understand why Peter Ustinov walks off with top acting honors. He ushers in hilarity and bolsters the suspense with is dizzy antics.

Director Jules Dassin paces “Topkapi” for maximum suspense right up to the last five minutes when you still aren’t sure what’s going to transpire. Masterful entertainment with a delightful score by Manos Hadjidakis.