20 years ago, the world was introduced to I Know What You Did Last Summer, the very first post-Scream entry into what became the second coming of the slasher genre. It’s a film that followed the blood trail left behind by horror maven Wes Craven, who catapulted just a few young faces into teen heartthrob territory, while carving out an iconic killer who played by the genres established rules. Loosely based off the 1973 Louis Duncan novel of the same name, as well as the urban legend The Hook, I Know What You Did Last Summer wasn’t just a product of a far superior horror film, but the creator of a more who-done-it slasher mystery that poked and prodded at the pitfalls of consequence.
Set in a small North Carolina fishing community – and I use that term loosely, as there is far from a supporting cast of townsfolk – during the 4th of July festivities, IKWYDLS focuses on a hit and dispose accident involving a group of teenagers that comes back to haunt them. There’s Julie, the token good-girl played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, her boyfriend Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who well, exists in a way background music exists, and their friends Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar, an often overlooked scream queen) and Barry, played to a boiling point by Ryan Phillippe.
After they intoxicatingly slam Barry’s dads BMW (“he’s gonna kill me!”) into a pedestrian along the winding coastal road, they haphazardly make a pack to dump the body and never speak of that night. One year later, with the impact of that night having woven itself into the very fabric of their young lives, an anonymous letter arrives to Julie bearing the titles message, setting into motion an anniversary to die for.
Now, those who can remember the subsequent years following the heyday of Scream can probably remember the kind of excitement that lingered in the air. This was a time that pulsated with slasher steam, as our young up and coming heartthrobs littered the covers of magazines, Neutrogena commercials, and television shows, with Party of Five in its 4th season and Buffy the Vampire Slayer just beginning to turn viewers onto the Sunnydale antics. These were thee it-kids of the waning 90’s, and while their presence doesn’t manage to give IKWYDLS nearly enough life to supersede its predecessor, it does sharpen its hook well enough for it to slice itself into the flesh of time.
Of course, it’s a presence that weighs heavily on the ability to evoke a Teen People lust, which our tormented group of friends do with a devilish wink and smirk that could sell skin care to Casper. Except it is far from on-display here; this is a film that refrains from objectifying youthfulness on full blast, in place examining friends that have fallen through the cracks after a jarring accident. What starts out as teen beat summer on the beach – our group basking in post-graduation glow – quickly becomes a distant memory as our characters find themselves faced with what amounts to the real world; one that, well, kind of wants to kill them.
Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lead Julie appears visibly and emotional scarred from the decisions of last summer, and it gives our film a necessary gravity. She appears to carry with her the brunt of that night, as a supposed eating disorder and failing college grades leave a watermark of trauma. Despite all of this, her performance feels just as bored as Freddie Prince Jr’s lackadaisical gaze. This is a guy who littered the walls of millions of teens with his boyish good looks and callous-free hands, yet we’re supposed to buy the idea of Freddie Prince Jr, the fisherman.
Sure, it’s used to raise suspicions of who the killer might be, but it’s so outlandishly preposterous that it allows us to overlook how much yelling Ryan Phillippe’s alcoholic kickboxer Barry, actually does. When he isn’t throatily delivering every line, he’s shaking, grabbing, choking and generally threatening Julie, who looks as terrified of her friends as she does the killer. Don’t get me wrong, Phillippe brings enough welcoming energy to capsize a small boat, but he ends up being a perfect storm of one-dimensional rage.
The real star of the film is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who feels in every facet like she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. She takes Helen to the very brink of small-town diva, and leaves her there to bask in the wind of prominence, never descending into a tangle of altruism. There’s a self-aware quality to Helen’s popularity as a local beauty queen, though it doesn’t hinder her character or actions. When she finds herself retail to her family business, there’s a defeated yet knowing quality to her, one that grounds Helen and places her front in center, even if the film treats her as a back-up friend. When people start receiving threatening messages, it’s a quality that is used to rain down severity; someone’s out there, and you might be next.
Despite playing ball-girl to IKWYDLS’s star player Julie, Helen manages to lock in one of the most expansive and gripping confrontations of this film, and any that would come after Casey Becker ended up the grand prize victim in Scream’s opening. Sure, Billy and Stu hacking at each other as Sidney Prescott looks on is a psychological boxing match, but when it comes to heralding in the established slasher tropes, Helen’s desperate escape brings down the curtain. It’s a scene that covers almost the entire ground of this fishing town, beginning in the back seat of a cop car – a set piece used to dizzying effect the same year in Scream 2 – and culminating in the back alley of her family’s store.
The sheer scope of it feels cut from the unjustifiably maligned slasher Curtains, which features a multi-set finale of hide-and-go-seek. Unfortunately, Helen’s death is unceremoniously ushered in, as we observe her struggling with our unhinged fisherman behind stacks of tires, only to hear her die off-screen. It’s a dashed effort at giving the films best scene and character its proper due, as we thoughtlessly move on in search of the real killer.
It’s a search that separates IKWYDLS from the new era of slashers; an ability to focus on whom and why as opposed to the when, which we already know is an inevitable action. Writer Kevin Williamson, who teamed with Wes Craven for Scream, does what he knows best in churning the hip factor with dialogue that feels cool yet even. However, not enough credit is given to Williamson’s fondness for the pre-slasher days, where Italian giallo’s reigned supreme with a black leather glove. Where a detective (who may or may not be the killer), pursues leads and a trail of bodies. This time, our detective just so happens to be a group of college kids, and our killer clad in a black leather raincoat. While some of the key elements that comprise a standard giallo are removed – sexually motivated kills, point of view shots – there’s the importance of mystery lingering in the shadows, giving IKWYDLS an air of individuality despite feeling convoluted to the point of exhaustion.
Still, it’s a necessary trait once the post-Scream heyday begins to wear thin, after original ideas fall victim to incessant remakes that only produce a couple noteworthy titles (I’m looking at you, Maniac). While IKWYDLS more often than not feels stuck in 1997, never truly transcending time in quite the same way Scream does, there’s an understated endurance to its story, and to those affected by it. Where most slashers tend to trivialize trauma, IKWYDLS heightens it, using it as a symbol of power, one that our group of kids fight to the death to get back.
In its 20 years of putting fear into the Gorton’s Fisherman commercials, I Know What You Did Last Summer manages to step away from the momentum of its star power, proving that there’s more to it than good looks. It’s a rusty take on the urban legend The Hook, and an adaptation that feels as detached from its source material as most horror films tend to be, yet it still manages to stand out as a turn of the century slasher with as much mystique as there is blood.
Behind a darkened hood and beneath absurd plot points – how does someone manage to remove a trunk full of crabs in less than an hour? – lies the search for resolve, for a removal of the thorn that stabs at the heart of grief, all the while paving the way for 1998’s Campfire Tales and the underappreciated slasher, Urban Legend.
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