Only on rare occasions have I had a bad taste in my mouth about a movie and then upon re-watching, I realized it’s actually better than my memory of it would have suggested. That was the case with my recent re-watch of 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Much like the other film I just reviewed, 2001’s Valentine, I Know What You Did Last Summer was following in the footsteps of 1996’s Scream’s: Big ensemble cast of whose who in Hollywood, with a killer on the loose and cloaked, so as to create some uncertainty as to who the killer might be. I would say this one also leans into the idea that the adults aren’t taking it seriously, leaving the kids to figure it out for themselves. That’s a classic of the slasher genre.
I should note, this film is even written by the same screenwriter as Scream, Kevin Williamson. So, my comparison isn’t entirely off-base. This was actually his second screenplay effort after Scream and it shows. Behind the director’s chair is Jim Gillespie, who basically didn’t do anything else of note besides a 2002 Sylvester Stallone movie I’ve never heard of actually, D-Tox. But I thought he did quite well with the film, not rushing to get to the bloodletting and letting the sleepy, beach town Williamson brought to life breathe its creepiness and ominousness.
The film follows four friends, Julie James (played by quintessential “final girl” Jennifer Love-Hewitt); her friend, Helen (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is just about to hit the height of her powers; Buffy started the same year); her boyfriend, Ray (played by Freddie Prinze Jr.); and Helen’s boyfriend, Barry (played by Ryan Phillippe), aka the biggest jerk of the entire series. It’s flabbergasting that all of the characters listen to him, but I suppose you could say it’s out of fear.
Those friends are enjoying the last summer together before going off to college when Ray, driving Berry’s car (because Berry was wasted), runs over somebody in the middle of the road. The friends freak out and decide that instead of ruining their futures, they should toss the body into the nearby body of water. What a great set-up for a horror film because who hasn’t thought about that situation before? Especially as a new driver?
So, these four are already dealing with manslaughter and hit-and-run, now abuse of a corpse. However, they elevate it to outright murder because as they try to roll the body into the water, the victim awakens and they beat him to death (presumably!) until finally getting his body into the water.
They all are affected by the tragedy: Julie goes off to college, but she’s a shell of herself and is distancing from her mother; Ray, who isn’t seeing Julie anymore, stays in the town and becomes a fisherman on a boat; Helen, who is the town’s beauty pageant winner and destined for big things, instead ends up working with her demeaning sister at her shop; and Barry continues being an alcoholic jerk. Never mind, the former three changed and Barry just kept being terrible.
One summer later, when Julie comes back home for the summer break, she receives an anonymous note, “I know what you did last summer!” Uh-oh.
Let the bloodletting and mayhem begin. Initially, they suspected that it was Max, someone who was sweet on Julie and drove by the hit-and-run at the time, but nope. He’s the first to die, so it can’t be him.
Not satisfied to kill the kids, the killer, who dressed up in fisherman’s garb and kills with a hook, also wants to terrorize them. For example, he cuts off Helen’s beautiful hair and writes, “Soon” in lipstick on her mirror, and then he has a chance to kill Barry and instead merely injures him. Perhaps that allows a chance for suspicion to fall on Ray, although his motive is unclear. Maybe because he resents being “left behind”?
Perhaps the best sequence in the entire film, and I think something that holds up with the best in the slasher genre, is when the killer is coming after Helen. It starts when Helen witnesses Barry killed during the latest beauty pageant, but the killer somehow hid the body, making the police doubt her. Then the killer kills the cop. At that point, he begins chasing Helen.
She’s able to get away and to her sister’s family store, where Elsa (played by Bridgette Wilson) pulls the Tommy Doyle act from 1978’s Halloween BY TAKING FOREVER TO OPEN THE DANG DOOR AS THE KILLER APPROACHES. Elsa was only upstaged by Berry in being a total jerk in the film.
The killer kills Elsa and then chases Helen some more. He catches up with her and brutally hooks her to death mere feet from an ongoing town parade. That was so rough! She was so close!
Julie thinks the person they ran over was David Egan, a local who previously lost his girlfriend, Susie Willis, in a car accident. Egan’s sister, who is creepy and another suspect, however, claims he killed himself. But obviously, the thinking goes, if it is Egan who they ran over, then it’s Egan trying to kill them now out of revenge.
Nope! Instead, the killer turns out to be Willis’ father, Ben Willis, who killed Egan and then was walking along the road that night.
Julie wants to tell Ray this, but that’s when Ray gets knocked out by Ben, leading to Julie stuck on the boat with Ben as he takes it out from the dock. From that moment on, the entire closing sequence is really well-done, with Ben chasing Julie (we even get what I feel is a homage to Halloween, where Ben has displayed all the prior victims for Julie to find), Ray fighting back to save Julie, and the end where they hack off Ben’s hand and dump him in the water … again.
Of course, later, we hear that they haven’t found the body yet … If that wasn’t a fun enough hint, Williamson drives the point home by ending with a flash forward to Julie in college, where she’s finally happen and with Ray again, until she receives a new note. Uh-oh. The note states, “I still know,” and then a dark figure crashes through the window to attack her. Was that a dream sequence or what really happened?
Welp, I guess I gotta watch the sequel now to find out!
Overall, this was super fun and as I mentioned, far better than I remember it being! Maybe when I previously watched it, I wasn’t as into the location (a nice change of pace from the rich suburbs of California compared to Scream, but maybe not as appealing to me as a teen) and the hook gimmick (I guess it seemed hokey at the time, but on re-watch, it’s brutal), but upon re-watch, all of it works for me.
With a simple story, I think Williamson and Gillespie, along with Hewitt and Gellar, who shine far more than their male co-stars, squeeze out enough tension, intrigue and scares to make this a classic in the slasher genre and a worthy film to follow in the footsteps of what Scream kicked off in the 1990s.