I Know What You Did Last Summer’ is one of many schlocky nails in the 90s teen horror coffin. This may seem like a harsh statement for a run of the mill film that reflected the zeitgeist of the moment, but lazy writing ruins the magic.
Starring icons such as Sarah Michelle Geller, Freddie Prinze Jr and Jennifer Love Hewitt, it’s clear where this film fits into the 90s canon – neatly sandwiched between
Scream and Urban Legends. The ‘Teen Horror Cinematic Universe’, if you will, boomed in the 90s with recurring actors and writers building and defining an aesthetic that drew and evolved from 80s classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Slumber Party Massacre. 90s horror promised subversion – horror with an edge – and this concept was of course cemented firmly by the aforementioned powerhouse that is Scream.
But is it fair to compare? To put Scream on a pedestal and proclaim that no 90s horror can scratch the surface of what it did, to compare each plot point, beat for beat and show how each slick thriller becomes less worthy as originality seeps away with every new rendition. I Know What You Did Last Summer, however, is a special case, in fact, it’s one of many special cases in this era for one key reason…Kevin Williamson.
The ‘mastermind writer’ behind this era was a breakout success with Scream. His meta writing, genuinely intriguing murder-mystery plot, and unique ‘teen-speak’ captivated audiences in 1996. But just one year on and he had lost his touch. Although, I Know What You Did Last Summer isn’t trying to be meta, Willamson falls down repeatedly from the mystery element being contrived and at times boring – with awful attempts at red herrings and misdirects – to the characters being flat and unlikable.
This is especially frustrating given how expertly he had constructed his earlier film. Each character, archetypal as they may be, was still somewhat believable and engaging, from Sydney to Stu, final girl to villain, the characters were crafted in such a way it’s hard to know who to believe and when. This is the most important aspect of a teen thriller. The teenagers are all somewhat unreliable narrators but this is completely nonexistent in I Know What You Did Last Summer. The characters are so one-note in Williamson’s ‘middle-child’ of a film that their names are constantly forgotten in reviews across the internet – often being referred to by their actor’s names.
Worse still, the killer reveal is one of the most anti-climactic moments ever to grace the big screen. After clumsily weaving through scene upon scene of Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) trying to piece together who is threatening her friend group after they hit a man with their car the previous summer and dumped the body (as all teenagers casually do), it is finally revealed the killer is Ben Willis. Who? Exactly. He does not spring to mind as one of the iconic slasher villains of 90s horror. His presence is muddy and it seems Williamson tried to make him somewhat sympathetic by shoeing in a motive concerning his daughter which falls down as there is no emotional connection to her whatsoever. And, instead of being iconic and imposing, the fishmonger’s slicker outfit Willis adorns along with his murder hook feels like a blatant attempt to make the villain iconic and memorable without the writing to back it up.
It seems Williamson has made a list of what makes teen slashers successful and tried to tick each box without regard for a coherent plot or characters!
The only mildly redeeming qualities this movie has are a few choice set-pieces – namely Helen’s (Sarah Michelle Geller) death sequence – and the overall aesthetic of a gloomy seaside town that’s near inescapable, complete with a grungy soundtrack featuring L7, Korn and Offspring. There are moments of genuine suspense but they feel removed from the overall plot. SMG’s death scene feels like it could be its own short film. Who the killer is doesn’t matter in this sequence – the audience isn’t invested enough because there’s a distinct lack of urgency. There are characters dying, so there should be panic, but they’re so unlikeable and shallow it’s hard to care. The only reason to care in that particular set piece is Helen being the most likeable character with the most depth and she’s played by Sarah Michelle Geller, aka Buffy. It feels like watching a film, and that’s a problem when the film isn’t trying to be meta.
The film had every capability to be well made but the writing problems bleed over into every aspect of production, tainting the film with a pulpiness that can only result in sighs and eye rolls as the credits begin. With the only redeeming factors being the fashion, actors and aesthetic, it’s no wonder this movie is largely influential in pushing the teen horror cannon away from the self-proclaimed dark, scooby-gang, murder mystery, Agatha Christie meets Heathers wave and onto a different track.
The direction splintered in the decade to follow, catalysed by other Williamson-esque films masquerading as the next Scream, from The Faculty to Halloween H2O, the genre became saturated. Teen horror attempted to move onwards – not necessarily upwards in all cases – with contributions from a variety of sub genres including The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Final Destination and Jennifer’s Body.
25 years later, there is yet to be a renaissance for I Know What You Did Last Summer. Constantly overshadowed by the well written films surrounding it, and let down again but it’s even worse sequel, it’s forgettable and yet again proves – as so much media has and will continue to do – that, despite the cast, crew and formula, poor writing never wins.