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I Know What You Did Last Summer
Columbia Pictures

Looking at ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ 20 years later

Two decades after the slasher movie was released, we celebrate Kevin Williamson's much-neglected Scream follow-up

In 1996, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream revitalised horror with a smart, funny, and wholly self-aware take on the then-dying genre. It spoofed the corny conventions of horror that had in part led to its inability to be taken seriously and managed to receive positive reviews while making a ton of money at the box office – something horror, that had largely gone direct-to-video, had been struggling to do. Longterm, its success made it a cult classic and sparked parodies, sequels, and violent crimes. Scream’s success meant that a follow up happened quickly in the shape of I Know What You Did Last Summer, another teen horror comedy, also written by Williamson but directed by Jim Gillespie.

I Know What You Did Last Summer, which turns 20 this year, is about four friends who, on the night they’re to go their separate ways before college, believe they kill a man with their car. A year later they are stalked by an unnamed killer, a fisherman with a hook, who claims to know what they did. It shares some similarities with Scream; it plays with horror conventions, starred beautiful teenagers, and is sharply funny. But, while commercially successful, it received mixed reviews, including one star from Roger Ebert. While Scream has retained its status as a legitimate film with an impact on culture, even being named one of Empire’s Greatest Movies of All Time, I Know What You Did Last Summer hasn’t enjoyed the same longevity. Its impact was felt immediately but didn’t last; it was parodied, and along with Scream, it formed the base for 2000 horror spoof Scary Movie. It also spawned two direct-to-video sequels that lost the charm of the original and bombed; all of these things, as well as the inevitable comparisons to Scream, conspired to spoil what could have been quite a legacy.

While Last Summer failed to cling onto any kind of lasting critical respect or relevance in the same way that Scream did, it deserved it. It became iconic from that first shot of the California coast (the only one in the film, as that’s not where it’s set or shot); a shot that Roger Ebert went as far as to call the best one. It’s very long, sweeping, and set to the rock soundtrack that underpins the entire film. That shot takes us to meet our cast; relative nobodies then, but actors who would come to define the early 2000s. Sarah Michelle Gellar, months away from becoming Buffy; Jennifer Love Hewitt on the precipice of becoming Jennifer Love Hewitt; and Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr, who would become heartthrobs with filmographies that mostly took place in the noughties.

Last Summer, which brought those four beautiful faces and funny personalities together, played no small part in the stars they would become. It was also responsible for uniting the most iconic couple of the era, one that is still together today: Freddie Prinze Jr and Sarah Michelle Gellar. The two met on set and would later marry and work together again. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe would work together again, too: on Cruel Intentions in 1999, another self-aware, campy, melodramatic film that would become a cult classic. The chemistry between the four of them goes a long way towards making the film what it is; the characters’ charisma, cruel jokes, fights and interpersonal relationships are enjoyable to watch, irrespective of how much of a horror fan you are.

Despite the film’s apparent attempts at self-awareness, it mostly functions as a sincere slasher film, if a funny one. Those self-aware aspects seem to die out after a certain point; at the beginning, the teens recount the hook legend, telling each other how it really goes, screaming “I’m gonna hook you!”. But then, cleverly, it slips into being a legitimate, even clichéd slasher. It gets away with it because it has set itself up as knowing exactly what it is: the twists and turns, the suspense, the red herrings, a murderer screaming “you’ve got no place to hide!”, the beautiful, bloodied girls running around and panting. The horror score. The fact that it, as so many horror films are, is set during a holiday; this time not Halloween or Christmas but the fourth of July. All of these things make it a slasher. But where it slips into cliché territory, it can say, “well, that was on purpose”. Its sale as a self-aware slasher from the writer of Scream gives it free roam to be as predictable as it wants. It is saved by that and the fact that even when it could be trite, it’s legitimately loaded with suspense.

But most importantly: Last Summer is just a lot of fun. Partly because of that suspense, but its visuals and dialogue help. It’s full of unforgettable scenes; Julie scrabbling around in ice, discovering bodies; Helen being crowned queen; the teens bloodied in the car. The dialogue wouldn’t be out of place now; it’s smart, fast, and enjoyable even when it strays into stereotypes. The characters are authentic, and most of the action focuses on their psychological trauma and breakdowns in personal relationships. They bicker, they blame one another, they fall out. They can’t trust each other, and they lose the things that made them so close and carefree; their innocence, their good hair, their boyfriends. After a few close calls and false alarms in uncovering the killer, the teens question their own sanity and the people around them increasingly stop having faith in them, too. Last Summer’s real genius is in how well it functions as a study of every individual teen’s mental state. How it keeps you, too, wondering exactly who you can trust.

Were I Know What You Did Last Summer not released in the shadow of Scream, it might have been less forgettable. And yeah, it isn’t Scream. Nothing is. But it’s a solid, funny, beautifully shot film in its own right; and with its cast, 90s outfits, and incredible soundtrack, is just as much of a cult icon of late-90s teen drama. It never slows down, and while it strays from being cleverly self-aware at times, it’s a cultural relic that if nothing else brought us the legendary, lasting love of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr.