‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ Lost the Best Parts of ‘Scream’ but Kept the Worst
I Know What You Did Last Summer, released 20 years ago today, is one of those movies that owes its very existence to a previous, superior one. That movie, of course, is Scream, which in turn owes its existence to previous, (sometimes-but-not-always) superior movies — and many of those movies are a whole lot like I Know What You Did Last Summer. It’s part of the weird cycle of creation, imitation, and reinvention that the horror genre goes through now and again. Unfortunately I Know What You Did Next Summer was not a step forward for the genre, at least not artistically. If anything it was a clear step back, ignoring the insights and freshness of its forebear. Gone is the humor and self-awareness of Scream, replaced by a grim seriousness and near-total failure to generate any creative new ideas for its characters or plot.
Written by late-’90s horror champ Kevin Williamson (who also wrote Scream, The Faculty and Teaching Mrs. Tingle), I Know What You Did Last Summer was a box-office success, spawning a sequel and embracing the trend of using young TV stars as the leads in scary movies. Scream had Party of Five’s Neve Campbell; I Know What You Did Last Summer upped it by casting her Party of Five co-star Jennifer Love Hewitt and adding Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar. The movie is based on a 1973 book of the same name, written by Lois Duncan, who apparently hated the changes to the story (like all the killing stuff). Its director, Jim Gillespie, had done nothing of note prior to the film and didn’t do much afterward. He didn’t even helm the sequel.
Scream took inspiration from all the great slasher flicks that, in turn, took their inspiration from 1978’s original Halloween. Movies like Friday the 13th, April Fool’s Day, New Year’s Evil, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Silent Night, Deadly Night all share similar DNA, right down to their one-particular-day-of-the-year titles. You probably already know the basics for this kind of story: A mysterious madman (usually bent on revenge for some years-earlier offense) sets about gruesomely murdering lots of people (usually nubile teenagers drinking and having premarital sex) until the hero (usually a chaste young woman) finally kills the bad guy (who usually doesn’t really die).
I Know What You Did Last Summer fits snugly into that formula, even if it doesn’t use the Fourth of July directly in its title. The movie starts off promisingly:
Driving home after a night of celebratory drinking and partying, four extraordinarily good-looking teenagers accidentally run over a pedestrian late at night. In a panic, they decide to dump the body into the ocean and make a pact to conceal their crime. A year later, as the Fourth of July approaches, one of the teens receives a mysterious note in the mail. “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER,” it says. Then come the creepy encounters, the bloody killings, and lots and lots of screaming. It’s an effective formula with a dynamite premise ... which is why I Know What You Did Last Summer is so disappointing.
The movie’s biggest problem emerges almost right away: This is not a particularly sympathetic or intriguing group of characters. Julie James, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, is the sensible one who actually appears to feel bad about killing a stranger. Hewitt has some genuinely good moments, including an impressive horror-heroine shriek. (Maybe she got some tips from scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, who reportedly visited the North Carolina set to help Hewitt with her first horror role.) But for the most part she registers as bland and mopey. We get that she feels guilty about the whole murder thing but we see a little too much wallowing, and it gets tiresome to watch.
Among the other three leads, the worst is Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe), just a complete a—hole, full stop. A spoiled rich jock driving around in his daddy’s BMW, Barry is a drunken loudmouth who berates his pals, objectifies his girlfriend, picks fights with random passersby, and whose favorite hobby appears to be yelling. The movie seems to make that all-too-frequent Hollywood error, confusing “good-looking” with “likable.” Now, a—holishness can make for a marvelously entertaining character — Phillippe himself showed how good he is at it just two years later as Sebastian Valmont in Cruel Intentions. That guy’s hilarious! It’s like they took that character, went back in time, stripped out all the charm and humor, and voila! Barry Cox.
Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.), who starts out as Julie’s boyfriend, gets the least screen time of the leads, and that’s probably a good thing. At one point late in the film, Julie thinks Ray might be the killer, something Ray could easily have avoided if he just admitted a few scenes earlier that he’s the one who went to visit Missy (a delightfully creepy Anne Heche) calling himself Billy Blue. But for some reason he keeps it to himself until it can be used against him. Good thinking, Ray.
Prinze is also about the least-believable fisherman possible, with his babyface features, flawless skin, and ability to do manual labor in the North Carolina sun without breaking a sweat. Couldn’t they have given him some facial scruff, maybe a chin scar, some tattered jeans or something? Instead this “fisherman” gets a sleek black tank top and hauls around a metal basket of crabs, and it is immediately obvious that Prinze has never before picked up such an object. Want to see a much more plausible onscreen fisherman? How about Johnny Galecki in this very movie, as Max, the guy who gets killed for no reason at all. (Seriously, why does the killer go after Max? Max didn’t do anything to him. Max hates these people more than anyone — if anything, the killer should recruit him, not gut him.)
At last we get to what passes for one bright spot among the main characters: Sarah Michelle Gellar as Helen Shivers. Gellar may not get a whole lot to do in I Know What You Did Last Summer as far as plot advancement, but she’s perfectly cast as the aspiring-actress/beauty-queen turned guilt-ridden townie. She gets one of the best lines, as Helen and Julie approach the childhood home of the man they think they killed last summer: “Yeah, Jodie Foster tried this and a skin-ripping serial killer answered the door.”
Gellar also gets (SPOILER alert for a 20 year old movie) the film’s best death sequence. It occurs over several locations and takes up a serious chunk of running time, as Helen has to figure her way out of multiple scenarios in which she knows a killer is after her but no one will believe her. She watches helplessly as her ex-boyfriend — the person who’s supposed to be watching after her — gets killed, then tries to explain what happened to an incredulous cop, and then he gets killed too, forcing Helen to break out of the cop’s car and find refuge in her family’s shop. There, her sister lets her in — and then she gets killed too.
The last major character we need to address is the bad guy. There are several things we never quite understand about Ben Willis, which isn't to say a slasher-movie villain needs to explain why he does all the things he does — he mainly just needs to be sufficiently intimidating. This fisherman killer isn’t particularly scary (it took a few scenes for me to stop chuckling at his hat-and-slicker outfit, especially during the daytime), though the hook is a solid weapon. But numerous moves he makes are befuddling. Why he feels the need to spook his victims first rather than just do the deed? Why send Julie that note and alert her to your presence? Why run Barry over at high speed if you don’t want to kill him yet? Why risk sneaking into Helen’s house while people are there and awake, only to hide in the closet and cut off some of her hair while she sleeps? (Also, how does someone sleep through that?)
But if Ben Willis does have one impressive ability, it’s body removal. This guy is phenomenal at that. When Julie discovers Max’s body in her trunk (covered in crawling crabs), she runs inside to get her friends but when they come back out, it’s gone (the crabs too). How long does it take to run inside and then back outside? Long enough apparently to clear out a corpse (the crabs too) in broad daylight and vanish without anyone seeing anything. And wouldn’t the trunk still at least smell? Later, after gashing Barry on the balcony, sending blood splattering everywhere, Willis manages to clear out the body and wipe up just about all of what had to be loads of blood in a matter of minutes, tops, before the cop gets up there and finds nothing.
In one of those quirks of Hollywood history, Kevin Williamson wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer before he wrote Scream, but Scream got made first. It was such a smash that the Sony immediately bought and green-lit I Know What You Did Last Summer to capitalize on the latest rebirth of the horror genre. Unfortunately I Know What You Did Last Summer is essentially the movie Scream was deconstructing and mocking. All those horror tropes and clichés that Scream subverted? I Know What You Did Last Summer relies on every single one.
Scream has long been credited with rejuvenating the horror genre, but perhaps that goes a little too far. Wasn’t horror doing pretty well in 1996? Not too much earlier, The Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars, and the intervening years produced films like Candyman, Interview With the Vampire, and Species. Perhaps what needed rejuvenation wasn’t the overall horror genre, but rather the teen horror sub-genre. By then all its landmark franchises — Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. — had dried up creatively. Scream quickly proved that the audience was definitely still there, they just wanted something good. However, they did not get that the next year with I Know What You Did Last Summer.
In 1997, if you wanted to watch smart, fresh, high-quality teen horror like Scream, you were better off staying away from the big screen. In fact, you could get a dose of it every week by plopping down in front of the TV for some Buffy the Vampire Slayer.