Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 24 October 2010
Source Sony DVD
The 90s Slasher Revival
Categories 31 Days of Horror VII
For much of the nineties, the horror genre felt exhausted. Save for the occasional glimmer of hope (such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994) the slasher boom of the eighties had largely sputtered into cultural irrelevance, dwindling profits, and some really terrible movies. But then came 1996’s Scream, a sleeper hit that saw screenwriter Kevin Williamson testing out a new strategy: creating a teen slasher movie about the teens who grew up with slasher movies in their VCRs. The film’s success spurred studios to start churning out more youth-skewing flicks in general, and more youth-skewering horror flicks in particular, many of them aping Scream’s metamovie bent, and a number of them flowing from Williamson’s own pen. Now, with nearly fifteen years separating us from Scream (and with the belated Scream 4 scheduled to open next year), it’s worth looking back at what nineties slasher movies said about us then, and what they have to say to us now. Every Sunday for the next four weeks, look for a new review of a film from the fleeting, achingly self-aware days of the nineties slasher revival.
Just how short-lived was the slasher’s return to relevancy in the nineties? To put it in perspective: less than two years after the release of Scream, the resurgence’s opening salvo; and mere months after the debut of the wildly entertaining coup de grace Halloween H20, we had I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Other critics have noted that I Still Know, a sequel to 1997’s flawed-but-fun I Know What You Did Last Summer, should logically be titled I Know What You Did the Summer Before Last, but that’s actually the least of our problems. I’m not looking to blame I Still Know for the slasher subgenre’s swift slide back into the direct-to-video netherworld from whence it came, but the film is certainly indicative of how quickly Hollywood began missing the point.
Though horror movies of this period were defined by their showy self-awareness, I Still Know limits the meta stuff to a quick sarcastic mention of Jason and Freddy. Unfortunately, the mention turns out to be entirely too apt: while I Know What You Did Last Summer was a story about vengeful mind games and murder, its sequel strives to transform the first film’s villain into something that he never was: a borderline-supernatural killing machine, hacking away at the film’s cast with little rhyme or reason save for upping the body count. A tacked-on and rather muddled backstory attempts to justify villain’s journey into Jason Voorhees/Freddy Krueger territory (his makeover includes a new, throatier speaking voice) as well as the absurd decision to relocate the action to a hurricane-swept island in the Bahamas, but viewers who aren’t predisposed to laugh at movies this ridiculous might give up on the entire enterprise in frustration long before the credits role.
The tropical change of scenery succeeds in banishing the effective maritime creepiness of the first installment, and it also opens the door for some weakly sketched supporting characters, including veteran actor Bill Cobbs as a red herring voodoo practitioner (There’s actually a thunderclap following one character’s utterance of the word “voodoo.”) and an uncredited Jack Black suffering some sort of career nadir as a dreadlocked pothead named Titus. Bahaman resorts aren’t intrinsically frightening, and a number of the scare tactics fall a bit short. To wit: early on, I Know What You Did Last Summer survivor Julie’s karaoke session at the hotel is interrupted when a menacing message appears on the teleprompter. Wait, I couldn’t help thinking, the ghoulish, hook-wielding fisherman took time out of his day to fiddle with the karaoke monitor? In addition to knowing what Julie did last summer, did he know that she would pick “I Will Survive” as her karaoke jam? Or did he also mess with the lyrics to “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” just in case?
I will admit that the bit where Julie was trapped in a tanning booth made me squirm, but for the most part, I Still Know’s silliness outpaces its creepiness. (Ray, the only other survivor from the first film, literally travels all the way to the Bahamas to confront the killer alone with a small, faulty gun.) It may be the sequel to a passable-enough teen morality tale, but I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is no more and no less than a bad slasher movie.
So what happened? Where did all the cheeky intelligence of Scream go? Perhaps any genre can only be pushed so far. In the early nineties, after a decade’s worth of blood-drenched sequels, even the studios were ready to lay Jason and Freddy to rest: 1991 saw the release of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and Jason Goes to Hell followed in 1993. Pioneering (and genuinely scary) slasher flicks like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street ensured brisk business for a slew of not-very-good horror flicks that followed. In the same vein, Scream may have reinvigorated that market, but it didn’t necessarily mean better quality control for the movies that capitalized on its legacy. What’s more, Scream and H20 sort of backed the genre into a corner. How often could this meta madness be repeated before the genre was simply chasing its own tail?
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer reverted to the kind of formulaic storytelling that the slasher genre is so obviously prone to, and it was far from an isolated case. Lately the subgenre has increasingly been a realm of remakes: Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Prom Night, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre have all been reimagined in the past ten years. Artful, groundbreaking slasher films are relatively rare, but profitable slasher films are easy to find, many of them hastily made regurgitations of something that made money in the season before. For our part, horror fans are used to wading through junk, and, perversely, we sometimes kind of enjoy it. I’m not sure where the current wave of remakes and sequels-to-remakes (remakes of sequels?) will take us, but I’ll be hoping (to go with a maritime metaphor) for another wave of smart horror, even if, like the nineties slasher revival, it crests all too soon.
The Thin Blue Line1988
The Ninth Configuration1980
Dying Room Only1973
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave1968
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde1920
I Know What You Did Last Summer1997
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark1973
To the Devil a DaughterUK / West Germany
The Town that Dreaded Sundown1976
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later1998
Frankenstein Created Woman1967
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer1998
Let Me In2010
The Phantom of the Opera1925