When I Know What You Did Last Summer was first released in 1997, the studio was trying to capitalize on the lucrative success of Scream by the same screenwriter, Kevin Williamson just one year earlier. The film’s production was rushed. Miramax sued Sony over language in the film’s marketing that suggested it was from the creator of Scream (which was directed by Wes Craven; IKWYDLS was helmed by Jim Gillespie). Lois Duncan, whose novel the script is based on, famously hated the movie. One of its most iconic scenes was an on-set suggestion from a kid who won a contest. All things considered, IKWYDLS should not have worked and yet, the movie was a box office success and has earned its due as a cult classic in the 20-plus years since.
I Know What You Did Last Summer follows four teenagers (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Freddie Prinze Jr.) after they accidentally run over a pedestrian with a car on the Fourth of July. The crew eventually agrees to cover up the hit-and-run, tossing the victim’s body in the water before agreeing to never speak of that night again. One year later, the four start receiving ominous threats from a stranger who claims he knows what they did, before things turn deadly (again).
I first saw this movie roughly 12 years ago, at an after-school program designed to keep nerds in my hometown from using their free time to get drunk and hook up in the woods. I spent most of the film’s run time watching in fear from behind a couch pillow, as I had yet to evolve into the “black-wearing, tattoo-covered, body-piercing philosophy student” that Julie (Hewitt) worries her boyfriend Ray (Prinze) will leave her for once they go to college. In the years since, I’ve developed a strong affinity for all things creepy and weird—specifically horror films. I was curious to revisit this one and what better way to kick off the summer than forcing my dear friend and colleague Frida Garza to watch it with me?
If you have yet to see it, too, in the words of our great protagonist/that random kid who won a contest: What are you waiting for?
Lisa Fischer: This movie has been so heavily parodied in pop culture, from Scary Movie to Man Seeking Woman to The Simpsons, I was kind of surprised you’d never seen it. The movie absolutely holds up for me upon rewatching, but what did you think as a first-timer? Did you have any expectations going into it?
Frida Garza: I will say I had a love-hate relationship with anything spooky as a kid. I was obsessed with ghost hunter shows, but would also cry when they were over, and I started to think about death as a concept. So my parents were exhausted and often just said some stuff was off limits. I Know What You Did Last Summer was one of these cultural touchstones that I expressed some curiosity in, and my parents ushered me past whenever we went to Blockbuster.
So I would say I had no expectations. I didn’t even know the movie was about four kids who were being harassed—for some reason, I assumed it was one person with a big secret—and that in fact, if the viewer knows the basic premise of the movie, they already know what those kids Did Last Summer. Murder! They did murder.
I didn’t expect the movie to be so campy, but I also didn’t expect to get genuinely scared. There was a scene where Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character is running away from the man with the fish hook, who has been after them all summer, and she finds the bodies of Ryan Phillippe’s and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s characters. I screamed! I think I grabbed your hand. I think maybe there’s more gore than psychological horror in this movie (the fish hook is a wildly inefficient choice for murder, but rather efficient in making me squeamish), but there is a lot of tension that builds up as the four kids are trying to outrun their guilt and figure out who is trying to kill them. Those were two separate battles but they were often fought at the same time.
If I had seen this movie in theaters when it came out, I would have been scared, especially by the home invasion aspects. Did it scare you as a kid?
Lisa: Honestly, I was about 12 or 13 when I saw this movie, and at the time I was so afraid of scary movies as a concept that I think a lot of my fear was premature, if that makes sense. By that, I mean that I viewed myself as someone who was too squeamish to watch most scary movies, so my reactions while watching were a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Watching it now, though, I do think the movie is effectively scary! We both screamed at that same scene, even though I knew it was coming.
I do think that the movie’s effectiveness is due, at least in part, to the characters actually being pretty believable (and the perfect casting). One of the things I find equal parts frustrating and entertaining about most horror films is that in order for the plot to progress, each character is written with approximately one brain cell’s worth of intelligence. The first time I saw IKWYDLS, I think I was too wrapped up in my own fear to recognize that while every man in the movie fulfills their idiot destiny, Gellar and Hewitt’s characters are pretty rational and resourceful (for the most part).
The accident happens right after pageant queen Helen (Gellar) wins her crown and Julie loses her virginity to Ray. What a fucking downer! The girls want to report the accident to the police in the first place, but their rationality is overpowered by their boyfriends’ BDE, setting off the string of events that will ultimately cost at least half of them their lives. Such a shame to see smart, capable women dickmatized into committing a felony offense. How did you feel about the characters?
Frida: They were literally dickmatized. Barry is the true instigator here, even though Ray was the one driving and technically at fault; Barry’s scared the police will automatically lock him up because he’s so clearly wasted and thus urges everyone to take their secret (that they drop a dead guy in the ocean!) to their grave. Maybe because the girls eventually give in—albeit reluctantly—to Barry’s plan, I expected the two couples to stay together throughout their first year of college, if only because they are now bound to each other through murder. In fact, they do not stay together, and that is the first real sign of trouble.
I have to admit that when the movie started, I thought the gender dynamics were going to be savvier. The very first exchange between Julie, Ray, and Barry involves Julie admonishing the guys for ogling Helen as she competes in their town’s beauty pageant. It felt super natural, and I thought they would explore more of that: the tension between the guys and the girls, especially after Barry practically forces Julie into going along with his plan to avoid the cops. But that never really happens. There’s really no exploration of the gender dynamics at all afterwards, maybe because the man they thought they left for dead starts targeting all of them, so they’re all victims of their actions and their decision to stay silent.
I actually wanted to ask; What do you make of Julie and Helen? The movie seems like it wants to cast Julie as a know-it-all semi-feminist and Helen as the shallow pageant queen. But for the most part, I saw them as equals. It’s pretty fucked up that Helen dies, when she was just as involved as Julie was in stopping whoever was stalking them. I feel like I’m supposed to believe that because Helen cares about her hair, she’s dumber than Julie, but there’s no other evidence to support this. They’re both definitely smarter than Barry, who drinks his problems away and is always wearing a sweater two sizes too big, which makes him look even more childish.
Lisa: I agree with you, justice for Helen! The sequence when she’s trying to outrun the killer is the most resourceful chain of events in the entire movie. I do think the way the film paints her in relation to Julie is unfair. Even down to the costuming, when the pair arrives at Missy’s (Anne Heche) house, Julie is wearing a fully white outfit, seemingly to project purity, while Helen is in jean shorts and a tank top. They look like they’re dressed for two completely different seasons, it’s insane. Also in reality, Julie is just as complicit in all of this as Helen. If they’re trying to imply that Helen is sluttier, that doesn’t work either. Julie has sex in the first 15 minutes of the movie, and talks about being “ravaged” by Ray on the phone in the final scene. Helen’s death is probably the main reason I haven’t watched any of the sequels. Without her, I don’t care!
Also, on your point about the couples staying together, Ray and Julie obviously reunite after the killer’s body is lost at sea again. Their two best friends, Barry and Helen, have just been brutally murdered and they’ve all been tortured for days (with the exception of Ray, who almost nothing happens to until the last 20 minutes, really). He and Julie lie to the cops again, denying that they know why a killer would be targeting them. When the film flashes forward to Julie back at college, she doesn’t have the same PTSD that she did after the initial accident a year before, which was much tamer by comparison. Are we supposed to intuit that the real tragedy of the first act is not that they murder someone, but that she and her high school sweetheart can’t be together? (I’m also now remembering that Ray tells Julie that high school relationships last longer than any other type of relationship, which is unintentionally the funniest joke he makes in the whole movie.)
Frida: Yeah, it’s funny because Helen and Barry don’t stay together (because they’re both brutally murdered). Barry actually turns out to be a total dick to Helen after that summer, which seems like his way of processing trauma, along with going to the boxing gym and wearing wife beaters.
You’re totally right: The costuming differences between Julie and Helen were outrageous, but I just couldn’t buy into the narrative that they were polar opposites, or even that one was virtuous and the other wasn’t. I guess I just felt like both of their characters are underdeveloped. Or maybe, they just didn’t play overly stereotyped versions of themselves: the skank, the booksmart one, etc. I dunno, I go back and forth on this. But in general, I think I wanted to know more about them. Like, what happened to Helen in New York that made her decide to come back and work at her wretched sister’s store? That could have been half the movie (or an entirely different one).
I know someone is going to be like, “It’s a SLASHER film, did you expect it to be about grief and coming of age and the interiority of women’s lives?” And the answer is, yeah, I kind of did! All of the components were there, but the movie focuses mainly on the fact these kid are being stalked and harassed, and of course, they never do the obvious thing, which is go to police and come clean. In the end, Julie and Ray realize they never committed murder, because the guy they dropped in the ocean was still alive, and they’re the victims here—and yet they STILL. DON’T. TELL. THE POLICE! And what happens, that creepy guy shows up again after Julie’s sophomore year of college and attacks her in the shower. In the shower!
It’s horrifying. I think the scariest parts of this movie were not the fish hook or the fact that the killer almost never speaks (although, yes, that’s terrifying), but the scenes in which he waltzes into Julie and Helen’s living situations and apparently can stay undetected long enough to do horrible things to them. Watching this movie, I remember being sooo afraid of a home invasion growing up (this is maybe why my parents told me I couldn’t watch more scary stories), how I’d check all the windows and doors before going to bed. This movie totally plays on that, but maybe it was just in the water in the later ’90s and early 2000s. Does this movie remind you of anything else?
Lisa: When I was a kid, I used to be afraid to sleep in a ponytail in case someone cut it off while I was sleeping (rational, I know). Then after seeing the scene when he cuts off Helen’s hair while she’s asleep, my fear was compounded when I realized that the ponytail was irrelevant! My hometown was also always on alert about home invasions after our illusory safety was shattered by one that made national news while I was in elementary school, so this movie hits on that in obvious ways for me as well.
And yet, I still stan this movie! The fact that it so effectively taps into my fear means it accomplished its goal. Minus the Helen/Julie dichotomy, I still think the characters are pretty believable considering the standard for movies of the same genre and decade. Apparently, the cast got into a car accident while filming this movie about a car accident and still didn’t tell anyone. As much as it pains me that Ray and Julie don’t tell the cops, it also makes sense for me in line with the fact that they’re just shy of 20 years old.
It’s wildly entertaining, and has an incredible soundtrack featuring bands like L7, Korn, and the Offspring. Inject the angst into my veins.
My final verdict is that this film holds up, which I guess shouldn’t be that surprising, considering it sparked two sequels and paved the way for casting Gellar and Phillippe in the greatest most fucked-up movie of all time, Cruel Intentions. Ultimately though, its greatest contribution may be introducing power couple Gellar and Prinze Jr. to each other, who are still as nauseatingly in-love as ever.
Frida: Yeah, I kept watching Prinze Jr.’s face every time he was onscreen with Gellar, hoping to see a furtive glance between the two of them. There was nothing that would indicate these two would fall in love just a few years later, and yet, here we (and they) are. I agree with you, that the characters all seem pretty believable, if you can accept, as you pointed out, that they collectively have like, seven brain cells. Julie and Helen definitely keep their wits about them the most, especially given that they bear the brunt of the harassment. There’s the scene were Julie looks up at the sky and screams, “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!!!” But otherwise, the composure she keeps from dealing with her dumbass boyfriend to almost failing school to having her life threatened over and over is impressive. Bitch really kept it together! Unlike Barry, who was lashing out at everyone, and Ray, who assuaged his guilt by diving headlong into a career as a fisherman.
I definitely think this is a movie I would have enjoyed in its time, and even though it feels dated, I also really enjoyed watching it now. I felt for the characters; I jumped a few times and felt scared; I loved Julie and Helen’s very different but also very campy personal styles; and the hard rock soundtrack added a layer of hilarity for me. In short, I’m glad it was made, despite the rushed production, and that it finally came into my life through this rather pleasant assignment.