Looking back at I Know What You Did Last Summer

It might've been overshadowed by Scream at the time, but James finds plenty to like when he revisits I Know What You Did Last Summer...

If there’s one genre that you can rely on to make the most of a current trend, then it’s horror. Right now, it’s remakes – the steam seems to be running out on shaky cam ghost stories, if the delay on Paranormal Activity 5 is any indication. Before that, it was the horribly termed ‘torture porn’ of the Saw movies. In these cases, one film has led the way for a slew of similarly themed horror films, and in the mid-90s it was no different. Scream marked a resurgence in horror, specifically of the slasher movie.

Scream was the granddaddy of them all of course, and is still, in this writer’s mind at least, one of the best horror movies of all time. In its wake came a tidal wave of new horrors that might previously have been headed straight to video but were now given a chance to make it into the multiplex. If there was one film that played bridesmaid to Wes Craven’s ghostfaced bride then it was I Know What You Did Last Summer. As the film celebrates its sweet 16th, it seems like a good time to examine if it holds up as well today as its big sister.

In the aftermath of Scream, screenwriter Kevin Williamson became Hollywood’s go-to guy for sharp, pop culture overloaded scripts. When Scream hit big, Williamson was already heavily involved in writing the TV show Dawson’s Creek. Fortunately, Kevin had another script gathering dust that he now found he had no trouble selling to Columbia Pictures.

I Know What You Did Last Summer was adapted by Williamson from a 1973 ‘teenage suspense’ novel by author Lois Duncan. Duncan was clearly blissfully unaware of the changes that Williamson had made, as she expressed dismay when she sat down in the cinema with her popcorn to watch the movie, only to find her story had been turned into a horror movie. This is a bit head-scratching as you’d think if someone was making a movie of a book you wrote, you’d find out about severe changes before release date. Duncan was 64 by the time the film was released, so she probably wasn’t Columbia’s target market anyway though.

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In truth, apart from the title, a couple of character names and the act of hitting someone with a car, very little of Duncan’s story remains in the movie version. Four friends, Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr) are embarking on their last summer before college in the fishing town of Southport, North Carolina. On 4th July, after Helen has won a pageant, they decamp to Dawson’s Beach (oh, Williamson, you crack me up) to get drunk, tell stories of urban legends about killers with hooks for hands and swap some bodily fluids.

(It’s arguable that 1998 slasher Urban Legend happened because of the success of I Know What You Did Last Summer, whose killer has its origins in perhaps the most well known of urban legends. A sort of ‘people liked this, let’s give them a whole movie of it’ type thinking.)

The quartet’s merriment comes to an abrupt conclusion on the drive home, when a distracted Ray ploughs head long into a man in the middle of the cliff top road. The characters then go through a complete spectrum of emotions in the next five minutes as they decide what to do with the body, including hiding it from passing school friend Max, a very pre-Big Bang Theory Johnny Galecki. Galecki must have one hell of a beauty regime as he doesn’t look as though he’s aged a day in the last 16 years. This roadside scene features some wildly over the top drunken acting from Ryan Phillippe, but it shows just how quickly the cracks in a close friendship can appear. While Julie wants to do the right thing and call the police, Ray is too stunned to contribute much at all, Helen and Barry go into hyper-selfish mode, not wanting to do anything other than protect themselves. 

Being the meeker of the two couples, Julie and Ray soon cave in to peer pressure, and the group resolves to dump the body into the harbour. There’s a clever bit of dialogue while at the water’s edge when Julie gets cold feet about the plan. Harking back to what was a care-free conversation on the beach, when Julie wants to check if the man has any ID on him, Barry tells her “Let’s just pretend he’s some escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand”. Unwittingly, Barry has just chosen the form of their destroyer.

After dumping the body, the group swear a pact to not tell anyone of their slight misdemeanour, with Barry physically assaulting Julie to ensure that she swears she’ll keep silent. Although these scenes are textbook slasher movie scenes, with Max almost catching the group and the obligatory “coming back to life” moment when the friend’s victim turns out to not be quite as dead as they first thought (a scene that’s traditionally reserved for the end of slasher movies but turns up here in the opening act), what we’re also seeing is the beginning of the destruction of friendship.

One year later and the story picks up as Julie James is finishing her freshman year of college and returning home for the summer. It’s immediately clear that the events of the previous summer have played on Julie’s mind as she appears drawn and tired. Jennifer Love Hewitt provided a more traditional leading horror lady than say, Neve Campbell had in Scream. As the damsel in distress of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hewitt has a formidable set of lungs, as she’s required to screech very loudly on a number of occasions. She brings a nice vulnerability to the role and she is the character that we feel the most sorry for in the film. She isn’t a hardened heroine built out of past trauma, she’s just really scared, as the one thing she feared would come back to haunt her, does.

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That haunting manifests itself in the shape of a hand-delivered note which simply reads ‘I know what you did last summer’. Seeking out her former friends Helen and Barry, it seems that they too haven’t exactly dealt with the previous year’s indiscretion as well as they’d hoped for.

Helen’s dreams of moving to New York City to pursue an acting career have only led her to working on the perfume counter in her family-run department store, under the management of her bitchy sister Elsa. It’s never explicitly stated that the events of last summer have directly resulted in Helen’s dreams of screen and stardom being crushed, but it’s not hard to make the connection. Helen is symbolic of the big deal girl in high school who gets chewed up and spat back out by the outside world. Her elder sister’s jealous attitude towards her indicates that it’s a trait that has run in the family.

On seeing the mysterious note, she and Julie seek out Barry to see what he has to say about it. Clearly it takes a stronger relationship than Helen and Barry’s to survive a spot of homicide, as the two find Barry in a none-too-sympathetic mood. The intervening year has done nothing to calm Barry’s temper – he flares up again when Julie reminds him that of all the things she did the previous year, “only one murder comes to mind.” Barry is a timebomb of pent-up rage. He’s tried sticking his head in the sand, but as much as he tried to ignore things, they just wouldn’t go away. Phillippe was a perfect casting choice for Barry, the rich kid who has always bought his way out of everything but this.

There wasn’t a whole lot made of the friendship between Julie and Helen in the early part of the movie, but through the awkward performances of Hewitt and Geller, the film lays bare just how events have torn their bond apart. Indeed, there is a good deal of time devoted in the film’s second act as to how the hit and run has affected the characters, rather than jumping headlong into the revenge story. It all comes back to Williamson’s obsession with the ideal of teen friendship – a theme that runs through all of his work, whether it’s the Breakfast Club-style coming together of different social types to ward off an alien invasion in The Faculty or the schmaltzy psychoanalysis of Dawson’s Creek. His preoccupation with teen drama sometimes seems melodramatic, but here lends I Know What You Did Last Summer an element of heart that lacks in a lot of horror movies where the emphasis is placed firmly on blood and gore.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Johnny Galecki’s death feels so out of place. The scene was added in reshoots to up the body count and introduce the killer in a more spectacular fashion: Max is left fuming when Barry jumps to the conclusion that as the only person who saw them on the road that night, he must be the one behind the note, and threatens him with a beating. Soon after, Max is stabbed through the throat with a hook-shaped ice pick by someone in a large fisherman’s coat. The reveal of The Fisherman, as the film’s villain has come to be known, doesn’t have quite the  impact of Scream’s Ghostface, but the visage does have a distinctly menacing and eerie quality to it.

It is arguable that The Fisherman makes more of an impression in the subsequent scene when Barry is terrorised at the local gym and hit with his own car. His slicker-clad assailant looms dangerous and darkly over him before leaving him alone. In the film’s most memorable sequence, The Fisherman then appears in Helen’s home and hides in her wardrobe before cutting her hair off while she sleeps. The whole sequence is extremely creepy, and there’s a brilliant shot of Helen coming back up the hall towards the stairs just as The Fisherman disappears into her room at the top of the flight.

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These scenes are genuinely freaky, as the killer teases and plays with Barry and Helen. They show that The Fisherman is biding his time; wanting to scare these people first before building to an end game. They would have made more sense and been even more effective if Max’s murder had been left out, a killing that doesn’t make sense in the film as a whole anyway.

Julie, the only one of the group who seems to still be even curious about what the quartet did last year, goes all Angela Lansbury (“We need a plan. Angela Lansbury always had a plan!”) and uncovers the identity of their supposed victim. David Egan was washed up on shore and is survived by his sister, Missy. In the hope of shedding some light on recent events, Helen and Julie decide to visit Missy in her swamplands home.

Anne Heche only has a couple of scenes as Missy Egan in I Know What You Did Last Summer, but she makes the most of them with a character who almost out-creeps The Fisherman. Heche hasn’t made a career out of playing sinister characters, and that’s a shame, as based on her socially awkward, introverted Egan, and her facial expressions as Marion Crane in that pointless Psycho remake, it’s something she’s very good at. Her sharp features lend her a face that was made for jump scares.

The film comes to a dizzying, blood-drenched conclusion on 4th July, the anniversary of that thing that they did last summer. Julie revisits Missy where she is presented with David Egan’s supposed suicide note – but the handwriting looks a little too familiar. She realises that David Egan wasn’t the man they ran down. A bit more digging around reveals that, one year earlier, David had been in a car accident which had killed his fiancé, Suzie Willis, the daughter of… dun-dun-duh! A local fisherman!

While Julie races back to warn Barry, Julie and Ray of… what’s that? Ray? Oh yes, Freddy Prinze Jr’s Ray. Hasn’t been mentioned so much in the piece as, well, he’s just not that interesting. Although Ray is integral to several plot twists, the film never feels as invested in his character as the other three leads. The collapse of his relationship with Julie isn’t as interesting as that of Helen and Barry’s. He’s really there to be the knight in shining armour for the big finish.

The stalk-and-slash stuff really gets underway during the film’s final act, as The Fisherman gets hook-happy after Barry and Helen, taking in a local policeman and Helen’s sister along the way. Barry comes a cropper while Helen looks on helplessly from the stage of the pageant, and while Helen evades the killer for a time, she meets a sharp end in an alley, only feet away from the town’s Independence Day parade, her screams masked by exploding fireworks.

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As far as gruesome deaths go, Helen’s is probably the highlight. Its close proximity to such a public event, that she was so close to being saved makes it seem all the more harrowing. And there’s an added note of tragedy, because in their last few hours together, Helen and Barry seemed to rekindle their affection for each other, only to have it snuffed out. They’re both characters that take a little bit of time to warm to, but by the time they meet a hooky end, we’ve become fond of them. The effectiveness of any horror movie kill depends on the audience feeling something about a character: all too often, films take the easy route, making a character so unlikeable that we just can’t wait for them shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s far more difficult to do what I Know What You Did Last Summer does, and make us sad to see them go because we actually liked them.

It’s a real shame that the film’s finale doesn’t live up to what’s come before it. Julie becomes convinced that Ray is The Fisherman and seeks help from a helpful stranger by escaping on his boat. Too late she discovers photographs of her and her friends taped to the wall. It’s the photos, and Julie’s apparent stupidity at getting on the boat, that signal the downturn for I Know What You Did Last Summer. It may sound like nitpicking, but the photos are only a few hours old, and it seems unlikely that the killer had time to nip to Boots mid-killing spree.

Anyway, the man behind the hook is revealed to be Ben Willis, father of Suzie Willis, who’d been busy murdering David Egan when the gang ran him down. It makes sense and it’s a decent twist, one that could have been work-out-able but still surprising enough to not feel like a disappointment. All that’s really left to do is for Julie and Ray to engage in a silly chase around Willis’ boat before dumping him, sans hand, into the ocean.

When questioned, Julie and Ray say they haven’t any idea why Ben Willis might have wanted to slice and dice them. They assure each other that “the whole last year was nothing, we never killed anyone”. Well, that may be technically true, kids, but you did hit a guy with a car and attempt to drown him. The sort of thing that someone might get a bit annoyed about.

The film closes with Julie back at college, about to take a shower, on the phone to Ray, all smiley happy. The scene does serve more than as just an excuse to have a moment of Jennifer Love Hewitt wearing a towel, as when Julie enters the shower block the words “I STILL KNOW” are written in the steam-covered door, seconds before The Fisherman smashes through the glass towards her for the obligatory one final scare.

Love Hewitt and Prinze Jr would return in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer a year later. It’s not a bad film as far as horror sequels go, but it lacked Williamson’s smart scripting and the friendship dynamic between the characters that had made its predecessor stand out. Also, the film really rested on the presumption that nobody watching the film would know what the capital of Brazil is.

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The Fisherman franchise then went on a break until 2006’s I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer. Intended to reboot the series, the film couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a sequel or a remake. The basic story is essentially the same as the first movie, but does reference the events of the previous two. The twist though is a real slap in the face. It seems the creators were trying to work a way into the film which would give them the opportunity for future instalments (I Know That You Know That I Know What You Did Last Summer as a possible title?) but it feels like a total cheat on the audience, and completely changes the type of horror film that the series was.

Given the weaknesses of its sequels, I Know What You Did Last Summer is always going to feel second best to Scream, but the original film has a great deal more going for it than a lot of people may remember. With its sharp script, it’s a menacing stalker movie that examines how friendships don’t survive through certain events. Of course, the events in the film are extreme, but we’ve all had companionships that have crumbled under much less pressure.

Alongside The Faculty and The Craft, I Know What You Did Last Summer deserves to be an essential part of any 90s horror box set.

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