It has been twenty years since horror fans first read the note that sent chills down their spines. At the time, I was a seven-year-old who had only fell in love with horror a year prior. Seriously, I fell in love with horror at the perfect time. I had all of the classic ’80s franchises to catch up on and, thanks to Scream (also written by Kevin Williamson), one of my favorite duologies was just being born. Williamson’s I Know What You Did Last Summer premiered on October 17,1997. I had to wait for home video because no one would take a seven-year-old me to the theater. Let’s celebrate the film’s birthday by looking at everything that makes it so great!
Starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Ryan Phillipe, this film follows a group of teenagers who are involved in a hit and run. After promising they will take their deadly secret to the grave, a year later they find out someone might know what they did. Starting off innocently with notes and pranks, their stalker becomes increasingly dangerous the longer they keep the secret. As time continues ticking and notes become the least of their worries, they will have to get to the bottom of what is going on before they all end up dead.
I Know What You Did Last Summer has everything going for it: a hot young cast, an iconic killer, and a story behind it that will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time. I remember watching it the first time. As soon as the credits rolled, I hit rewind. (For millennials: that’s how us ancient ’90s babies got back to the beginning of a movie, while we worried if dinosaurs would eat our entire family).
This film solidified my love for Kevin Williamson. Even at seven, if I saw his name attached to a horror movie, I was all in. He has such a knack for creating relatable and likable characters. In I Know What You Did Last Summer, my favorite character was Julie James (Hewitt). She’s honestly a good kid that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of the four friends, she is the only one that really shows any remorse. It makes it that much easier to root for her survival. A close second is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays Helen.
Julie and Helen’s friendship, for me, is what carried the film. Helen and Julie are complete opposites. While Julie is guilt-ridden over them not only accidentally killing someone but covering it up as well, Helen seems more concerned with the state of her and Julie’s friendship and making excuses. Julie is obviously the moral compass. She has a scene in which she finally lets Helen know exactly why they aren’t, and probably won’t be, friends like they used to be.
After visiting someone who they think is related to their victim, Julie sits in the car with Helen and lays her heart out on the dashboard. Helen tries to comfort her. This scene shows us exactly how she got through the previous year: denial. When Julie drops Helen off at home that night, Helen tries to revive their friendship by asking her what happened to it? When it is clear by Julie’s dismissive answers and ultimately, her silence, Helen exits the car desperate to retain any dignity she might have left.
In my opinion, I Know What You Did Last Summer was successful because it wasn’t just a typical slasher movie. There’s more going on than a group of kids getting picked off one by one. The hit-and-run wasn’t just a strategically placed event designed to provide motive. We witness the fallout of friendships, the effects of guilt, and soon begin to question our own moral judgement for feeling like they don’t deserve anything that happens to them. Well, everyone except for Helen’s sister – that character made me irate. It’s cool though. You’re not supposed to like her. And (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t survive.
If you grew up in the ’90s, chances are you got the chance to see this as well as its sequel. Happy birthday, I Know What You Did Last Summer! You are twenty years old and next year, the drinks are on me. A big shout-out to Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar for making my childhood so amazing with their performances, and ensuring that all of us will never forget what they did twenty summers ago!