I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER is a major pillar in the late ‘90s streak of newfangled glossy studio teen slasher movies. It was released less than a year after SCREAM, two months before SCREAM 2, and three months before Dawson’s Creek started airing, so it was the first real test of whether or not SCREAM was a fluke for screenwriter Kevin Williamson. He’d already been hired and written this loose adaptation of the 1973 young adult suspense novel by Lois Duncan before SCREAM, but when that was a hit all the sudden it became a priority. Williamson was still involved, seeming to have a hand in choosing the director and cast, according to interviews.
Set on two consecutive 4th of July holidays in the small fishing town of Southport, North Carolina, it’s the story of fresh high school graduates Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt, CAN’T HARDLY WAIT), Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr., DELGO), Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe, 54) and Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar, SOUTHLAND TALES) accidentally running over someone late at night while driving home from drinking on the beach. Worried about their lives being ruined by manslaughter charges, they decide that rather than report it they should dump the body in the water and swear to never speak of it again. As kids do.
A year later while Julie is away at college she receives a mysterious note saying “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER.” (Decent handwriting, too. Not laying it on too thick about being a psycho.) So she comes home to check in with her co-conspirators, whose lives seem to have been as crushed by the guilt as hers has. She expected beauty queen Helen to be off in New York pursuing her dream of acting, but she’s back in town working the register at her parents’ store with her hateful older sister Elsa (Bridgette Wilson, Sonya Blade from MORTAL KOMBAT). Ray is working on a fishing boat and Barry is… I don’t know, an angry rich kid. But the kind who wears tank tops all the time and gets in fights, not the prissy kind he plays in CRUEL INTENTIONS.
They suspect the note comes from Max (Johnny Galecki, THE OPPOSITE OF SEX), a kid Julie rejected who drove by and talked to them shortly after the accident, but we quickly see that that’s not the case when some dude in a fisherman’s raincoat murders Max with an icepick hook at the crab factory where he works. This hook guy will continue to stalk and taunt the friends around town as they try to figure out his identity. Julie uses newspaper articles to ascertain who they ran over that night and they go meet the guy’s older sister (Anne Heche, PSYCHO). Pretending to just be some people experiencing car trouble, they try to strike up a conversation about her dead brother and who he was close to who maybe would, I don’t know, avenge his death or anything like that. Very uncomfortable.
Of course some of them get killed, new information comes up, they figure out who the killer is and have a final showdown followed by the ol’ “but is it really over?” epilogue. A classic structure.
There are many touches that are now familiar as Williamson’s fingerprints. I doubt he knew he’d be making a show called Dawson’s Creek when he set a crucial scene at “Dawson’s Beach.” I think some of the dialogue is a little self conscious, but most of it works. I don’t really like that Elsa is always mean for no reason but isn’t in it long enough to reach the “actually we like her now” point on the Gail Weathers arc. Julie briefly interprets the hook in an urban legend as a phallic symbol that will then be castrated, which is obviously very in line with all the horror movie talk in the SCREAM movies, but I like that there’s not much of that. That she would’ve heard or thought of that before is a hint that maybe she reads more academic shit than her not-college-bound friends, but it’s not her whole personality.
I guess I still have trouble talking about this without bringing SCREAM into it. That was definitely the case at the time. Although I think it was pretty well liked, there was a strong contingent of people who liked SCREAM for its deconstruction and attacked this for just being a straight ahead slasher movie. But at the time, and still today, I appreciate it for exactly that. I also like that although this is a mystery it doesn’t bother much with red herrings and shit. They know it’s someone getting revenge for the guy they ran over, there’s just suspense about who, specifically.
It was the first feature for director Jim Gillespie, who has not turned out to be very prolific (his followup was Stallone’s EYE SEE YOU/D-TOX, then one called VENOM that I’ve seen but quickly forgot, and a 2016 action movie called TAKE DOWN). He’d directed some TV and a short, and his video for Queen’s “Made In Heaven” was pretty impressive. What I think he does great with I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER is set up a potent, ominous atmosphere to this fishing town, gloomy skies and explosive waves seeming to close in on everybody, but they ignore it as their 4th of July fireworks explode above and the Croaker Queen festival rages below.
With its big hairdos and old timey MC (J. Don Ferguson, RADIOLAND MURDERS) I thought at first this beauty pageant scene was a decades-earlier prologue. But it’s just how the town is, I guess. Our group of kids in particular don’t take it seriously, sitting in the empty balcony, hooting half-jokingly for their winning friend, later after-partying on the beach as they’re on the verge of leaving childhood, and this town, behind. We barely see any of their home life – their parents might as well have Charlie Brown voices – but they’re definitely eager to have their, you know– independence.
It starts off so strong with the impressive opening helicopter shot soaring across the water of what’s supposed to be the North Carolina coast, wave and wind sound effects breaking through the music (by Type O Negative), setting a foreboding mood before I picked up that it’s a creepy cover of “Summer Breeze.” Then it melts into the score by John Debney (GUNMEN, CUTTHROAT ISLAND, SIN CITY, ALEX CROSS) before the shot lands on an apparently suicidal dude (Jonathan Quint, BOOGIE NIGHTS) drinking a beer and fondling a locket while his legs dangle over a rocky cliff. This is key to the eventual answer of who knows what they did last summer, but it won’t be clear how exactly until near the end. For now, fireworks explode in the sky above and we follow them into town where the celebration is happening.
You know that feeling you get as budgets for many horror movies get smaller and digital short cuts become expected, and then you see something that we used to take for granted and think wow, that’s a real movie? That’s how I felt seeing the 4th of July celebration in town – so many extras, shot at night in this interesting location. Looks like a fun time. And then they have their private after party on the beach, there’s a wrecked ship in the water and the waves are menacingly high. Kinda reminds me of the opening of THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, the way the rough waters portend a looming threat but everyone’s too involved in what they’re doing to notice.
A nice horror movie moment is their campfire discussion of the urban legend “The Hook,” which they’ve all heard different versions of that they think is the “real” version. In the tradition of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II their joking around trying to scare each other establishes a format for how the subsequent killings are supposed to work and then finds ways to either follow or violate that format. Also, since they refer to the story again while dumping the body we can infer that it inspires the killer to terrorize them with a hook.
Of course you get that A SIMPLE PLAN thing where they’ve decided to cover up this accidental death and then he turns out to still be alive and they still go through with it. This is a great moment of fun chaos because he grabs Helen’s Croaker Queen crown as they dump him in the water. The single most damning piece of evidence he could’ve taken with him. So Barry has to dive in and get it and the advantage of having a studio budget is that they get to do some good underwater photography here. Not needed, but appreciated.
The element of horror fun that feels missing here is some high notes in the form of nasty kills. In this type of story you really can use some release in the form of a gross out moment or a holy shit I can’t believe they did that. I can tell by there being more than one fuck that this is an R-rated movie, but the level of onscreen violence seems like it’s going for a PG-13. Often this happens due to censorship, but Gillespie said in interviews that he didn’t want it to be too violent and chose to shoot virtually no blood. Rookie mistake. Must not have run that idea past a single person who has ever or would ever pay money to see a movie of this type. Thankfully, producer Erik Feig (WRONG TURN, STEP UP, P2) made Gillespie add the blood spraying on glass because it looked stupid to have a throat be slit and not bleed, and they also added the death in the crab factory after test screenings noted that what the fuck are you doing here this is supposed to be a slasher movie stop fucking around and do what we came here to do motherfucker.
To be fair, there are some pretty well done sequences, like when Helen is attacked out in the open in public, but behind some piles of tires, her screams obscured by the sounds of fireworks and a passing marching band. Also I like when Julie finds the trunk of her car entirely filled with live crabs (and a dead body), though I can’t swallow the idea that the killer somehow cleans all of that up, unseen, in the brief amount of time before she gets her friends to come look at it.
Another nice rendition of the formula is that we have the killer’s evil lair, where Julie finds clippings and photos about her and her friends, plus the bodies of her friends. But since the killer is a fisherman the lair is the lower deck of his boat, and the bodies are kept on ice normally used for the fish he catches.
The fisherman (Muse Watson, ASSASSINS) does get a pretty funny supposed death at the end. He gets wrapped up in ropes from the rigging of the boat and the pullies jerk him up into the air, tear off his hook-holding-hand, and dump him into the water, where they assume he drowns. I feel like it deserves one more nasty exclamation point at the end, swinging him onto a boat motor or something, but it’s pretty great how Ray and Julie watch the whole cartoonish chain reaction in wide-eyed horror. No satisfaction of victory. I guess it was a relief to find out they didn’t kill the guy they ran over after all. But now maybe they did. Incidentally, I like that guilt over a car accident turns out to be part of the backstory before their car accident, though it’s maybe a little convenient how them having run over a guy who was had just murdered a teenager kinda lets them off the, uh… the hook.
The only thing that I consider a little dated in a bad way is the soundtrack. To me many of the songs are corny, especially whatever the end credits song is, but people younger than me may feel differently, and also that’s nothing new for teen slasher movies since at least the late ‘80s. Trying to appeal to the youths is generally gonna turn your movie into a time capsule. (They also throw in Lead Belly singing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” so it’s not all ’90s. Or second half of the twentieth century.)
The casting has aged better. At the time, loading the casts of horror movies with pretty TV stars and heartthrobs rather than newcomers was becoming the standard, and many horror fans and/or people my age instinctively pushed back against it. We liked Gellar from Buffy but turned our noses up at the others, downplaying their talent if not completely rejecting them. Watching it now, though, I think they’re all pretty good in this, including the much maligned Prinze. I don’t remember if I thought this at the time, but Hewitt is particularly solid in the lead role. All of them start off so happy and care free, but I don’t think we ever see them smile again after the accident.
After the year long break in the story Julie is especially sad and distant. Hewitt gradually amps up the fear and frustration until the famous scene where she spins around yelling for her unseen stalker to come get her. However she doesn’t get a chance to be as physical as many Final Girls, as a result of Williamson’s choice to (as in SCREAM) make her more of a Central Girl. He leaves her boyfriend in the picture so she never gets that Sally/Laurie/Nancy stretch where it’s on her alone to survive and get this fucker.
To me I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER has some pieces of greatness that are put together in such a way as to only amount to a movie that’s pretty good. But just as so many of the movies rushed to cash in on FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN play well today, so does this first of the SCREAM-alikes. For that era it was one of the few more concerned with tried and true horror methods than copying what they thought was the hot new way of doing it, and I appreciate that. It may never fully live up to its very strong first act, but it gets close enough to be worthwhile.