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`Last Summer' falls prey to earlier film flaws

Here's the secret to last year's horror/slasher/comedy smash hit "Scream": It was highly overrated.

Many film audiences obviously didn't think so, since it went on to gross more than $100 million in the United States alone.But "Scream," by veteran horror director Wes Craven and first-time screenwriter Kevin Williamson, was really little more than a handsome-budgeted slasher flick - and one with an abundance of cutesy, "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" references to other horror movies.

Small surprise, then, that "I Know What You Did Last Summer," also written by Williamson, falls prey to those same mistakes and actually relies on some of the same cliches he claimed to be "parodying" in "Scream."

What is most troubling is that the creators have turned a revered young teen novel into a routine and violent, R-rated horror film.

The film starts off promisingly enough, as four recent high-school graduates - brainy Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), beauty queen Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), working-class Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and cocky jock Barry (Ryan Phillippe) - discuss the urban legend about the "Hook-hand" killer over a campfire (can you say foreshadowing?).

On their way back from the celebration, the teens speed down a treacherously winding road and accidentally mow down a pedestrian. In a state of shock and afraid of being caught with liquor, they agree to dump the body and cover their tracks.

A year later, the four still haven't completely recovered from the experience and are floundering in dead-end jobs or at college. To make matters worse, they've started receiving threatening notes from someone who claims to have seen what they did.

Soon enough, a shadowy figure appears (dressed in a rain slicker and hat, carrying a meat hook) and the bodies start piling up.

Aside from better plotting, what would have probably helped is some more broad humor, like that in the similarly themed, but much more creative "Dr. Phibes" films, which featured Vincent Price during the '70s.

Instead, as mentioned, Williamson and first-time director Jim Gillespie rely on some seriously cliched plot devices (like the irritating "killer-who-will-not-die") to drum up scares, of which there are surprisingly few. And most of the "shocks" are of the cheap variety.

Williamson still hasn't figured out how to create characters, and most of the leads here are nothing but shallow stereotypes. Young TV stars Hewitt and Gellar, in particular, are wasted. (In a truly odd bit of casting, Anne Heche plays a mysterious hillbilly!)

And, curiously, though the film supposedly takes place in North Carolina, none of the characters (save Heche's) have Southern accents.

"I Know What You Did Last Summer" is rated R for violence, profanity, some gore and brief nude silhouettes.