“Helen, we killed a man and ruined the lives of everyone he knew.”
After Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) made it cool and hip for young actors to star in slasher movies, Williamson teamed up with director Jim Gillespie to bring the world I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), a movie based on Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name.
Like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer rolled out a bevy of young, trendy actors and actresses in starring roles, including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Johnny Galecki. It was easy for jaded horror fans to roll their eyes when the cast was announced.
However, whereas Scream started the self-aware, hip slasher movie trend, I Know What You Did Last Summer surprisingly brought the sub-genre back to basics.
The cinematography complements the brooding tension, using the misty coastal setting to maximum effect. The isolation of the town and the omnipresent sound of the sea create an eerie backdrop for the unfolding horror, heightening the sense of vulnerability of the protagonists. This isn’t just another teen horror flick; the movie presents a palpable sense of dread and inevitability. The locale feels like a character in its own right, with the lighthouse, docks, and winding roads becoming the silent witnesses to the group’s dark secret and the ensuing terror.
Moreover, the character development is commendable. As the plot unravels, so do the personal dilemmas, guilt, and paranoia of the main characters. The script cleverly presents their individual traumas and the psychological toll of their shared secret, adding depth to their personas. This makes their ordeal even more riveting as the audience is invested not just in the scares but in the internal battles of the characters. In essence, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” goes beyond typical slasher conventions to offer a haunting tale of repercussions, old wounds, and inevitable comeuppance.
I like this movie so much that if I was forced to move to an island and only allowed to take ten slasher movies with me, I would definitely choose I Know What You Did Last Summer as one. At its heart, it’s an old school slasher. There are no self-aware tropes, no characters explaining how to survive a horror movie. This is a pure slasher/mystery from start to finish, and it is executed with solid acting, good direction, and top notch scenery.
I Know What You Did Last Summer takes place in a small seaside village, with much of the action taking place along piers and wharfs while the ocean pounds the beach. From the stunning introduction, which features a flyover of a raging ocean while Type O Negative performs a haunting version of Seals and Crofts’ Summer Breeze, it is clear this movie means business.
A somber atmosphere hangs over every scene. Skies are often gray, the interior scenes dank. Though the characters are played by some of the hottest young actors and actresses of the late 1990s, each character is portrayed rather darkly.
It doesn’t take long for the movie to get down to business. While driving home after partying on the beach, the teens run over a man in the road. Alcohol has been spilled inside the vehicle, and the teens know no cop is going to buy a story about a sober person driving the car. Their lives are about to be ruined forever. They make the hasty decision of disposing of the body in the ocean, promising each other to never speak again of the incident.
Fast forward to next year. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character, Julie James, has gone from being a straight-A student in high school to the probation list in college. If she doesn’t get her grades up soon, she will be asked to leave. When summer vacation rolls around, her roommate practically has to drag Julie from the dorm room to get her to go back home.
Back at home, we find that Helen, played by Gellar, never went away to school at all. Instead of leaving for New York, she is working for her hateful sister at a boutique. Julie’s former boyfriend is working on fishing boats with no interest in college. All of the characters involved with the coverup have been adversely affected, and this is very humanizing to watch. We want them to pull themselves up, and we find ourselves cheering for them to recover.
It is at this time that Julie receives a letter with no return address which simply says, I know what you did last summer. At first, Julie’s friends aren’t convinced the letter has anything to do with the murder coverup. Then new murders occur in town, and a man dressed in a dark fisherman’s suit, holding a hook, begins to terrorize them.
Who exactly did they kill on that fateful night a year ago? Did the person survive? Is an angry friend or family member carrying out a twisted vengeance?
The twists and turns are some of the best in the slasher sub-genre. There is a fair amount of gore, but nothing over the top. I Know What You Did Last Summer thrives on well-executed stalk scenes, frightening imagery, and a relentlessly dark atmosphere. The acting is strong, better than Scream, and the movie plays the slasher sub-genre straight, without a need to knowingly wink at the audience, as though we are all in on the joke.
I like Scream, but I love I Know What You Did Last Summer. This movie, if issued circa-1980, would be considered one of the slasher sub-genre’s all-time classics. Instead it is a movie which is unfairly lumped in with the self-aware, trendy slasher era, which started with a bang with Scream and quickly descended into a mountain of festering garbage, such as The Fog (2005).
If you love slasher movies but have purposely avoided I Know What You Did Last Summer because you thought it was just another trendy late-1990s horror movie, I recommend you give this movie a chance. It truly is one of my all-time horror favorites, a perfect summer movie, and it never gets old. For the ultimate experience, bring this movie along the next time you vacation by the beach.
Grab this awesome slasher on DVD at Amazon.