The reckless partying of teens during a summer’s eve leads to a horrendous car accident on a coastal road. A body is hidden and secrets are buried. Until they’re not. This is the plot of Lois Duncan’s 1973 suspense novel “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and its many adaptations. When brought to the big screen in 1997, screenwriter Kevin Williamson (“Scream”) reworked the plot to resemble the boom on neo-slashers he helped usher in. Amazon Studios’ new iteration, developed by Sara Goodman (“Preacher,” “Reunion”), takes this same loose approach in its adaptation, taking little else than the high concept and title of Ducan’s original work. Relocated to Hawaii, the story is now reworked into an overly serious teen drama, albeit one with plenty of gore.
Oddly also added into the mix is the trope of twin sisters who hate each other until one of them dies, perfected by Bette Davis in “A Stolen Life” and “Dead Ringer” in the golden age of Hollywood, and most recently Sarah Michelle Gellar on the CW soap “Ringer”. Here we have Madison Iseman (“Jumanji: The Next Level”) in the dual roles of sisters, Alison and Lennon. Still reeling from the death by suicide of their mother, Alison is a mousy misfit while Lennon is a popular overachiever with a drug habit. While their actions set them apart and Iseman has an alluring face for much of the first episode it was hard to tell the two characters apart. Which makes the big twist at the end of the first episode all that harder to follow.
On the night of their high school graduation, their fraught relationship explodes when Lennon sleeps with Alison’s sad boy crush, Dylan (Ezekiel Goodman). Things get worse when Lennon, along with her drunk and high friends insta-famous Margot (Brianne Tju), queer jock Johnny (Sebastian Amoruso), and secret drug dealer Riley (Ashley Moore), accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian on the dark island road. When the group discovers the body is someone they know, the group decides to drag the body to a cave notorious for being the site of a mass suicide years earlier. The tide will carry the body away and their futures will be clear. But of course, we know it’s never that easy.
In the four episodes shared with critics, we quickly learn that everything we thought we knew from the first episode is not exactly as it seems. The chapters teeter between that fateful night during the titular last summer, and the present summer in which the young criminals are tormented – and sometimes viciously murdered – by someone who knows their secret.
This all sounds good on paper, but unfortunately, nothing works. One of the deepest mysteries is truly why they set the story in Hawaii at all. The island setting is barely utilized, and really it’s a bit weird to center a story set in Hawaii on a pair of blonde teenage girls. Much of the action takes place in the dark and is lit so poorly it’s hard to tell geographically where anything is actually happening. The tone of the events is also so dour. There is no pulp, there is no humor, there are none of the satirical edges that made the ‘I Know’ films so much fun years ago. There’s not a single compelling character amongst the group of privileged, quasi-sociopathic teens.
Even the sexual aspects are weirdly puritanical. Most of the sex is transactional, with one character running an OnlyFans—who is later shown taping a partner without their consent. There’s an odd B-plot featuring the least sexy affair ever between Lennon’s father, Bruce (Bill Heck), and the sheriff (Fiona Rene). It’s rough when a scene of cunnilingus feels perfunctory. Ultimately, the way the show utilizes sex taps into the old-fashioned slasher trope of “if you have sex you’re going to die.” But at least in most of those films, the teens having sex seem to be enjoying themselves before they meet their demise.
As for the murders, they’re gruesome for sure. Someone gets their head chopped off with a shovel, while someone else dies from a blue raspberry slushy pump shoved down their throat. Sounds cool? It would be if they actually bothered to choreograph these deaths in a way that was visually interesting for the viewers. Why even bother being this gruesome if, again, the lighting is so bad you have to rely on the sounds to understand what is happening on screen?
Confounding things further is the strange POV of the series. The first episode begins with a maudlin voiceover from Iseman as Alison/Lennon, but this voiceover is not returned to in the first four episodes. Sometimes the audience learns things when she does, but other times it follows side characters allowing the audience to be a few steps ahead of her, just never enough for us to know who knows what they did last summer.
But frankly, by the time the fourth episode ended it was hard to care. The cardinal sin of a mystery is to be not interesting enough to keep people wondering what’s going to happen next. You also have to be rooted in the struggles of these characters enough to care who is torturing them. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest problem with ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ the show: the only motivation for the audience to care who knows what these teens did last summer is so the show will finally end. [D]
“I Know What You Did Last Summer” hits Amazon Prime Video on October 15.