The 1990s is not known as being one of the best times in horror history, but the truth is that it actually gave us a lot of great stuff. From big studio releases like Silence of the Lambs, Candyman and Jacob’s Ladder, to smaller, more obscure releases like Castle Freak, The Ugly and Audition. It was a very diverse time for the genre. But everything after 1996 gets treated with a very pointed kind of sameness. It’s the same thing that happened to slashers after Halloween. Everything was accused of being a rip off.
Scream breathed fresh life into the slasher genre at a time when it was almost completely dead. That wound up having the same impact that Halloween had had in that it opened up the floodgates for more and more similarly themed films to be made. Die hard, purist fans hated these teen slashers and for the longest time they were treated with nothing but resentment. Thankfully, Scream was eventually treated as the classic it deserves to be recognized as. Critics had always loved it, but many horror fans passed it off for the longest time. But when they decided it was actually good and did a lot of good for the genre, that hate didn’t go anywhere. It only shifted slightly toward the left.
Scream was the one that changed the game and came out of nowhere, I Know What You Did Last Summer was the one that followed right on its heels and borrowed the same formula. But much in the same way that Friday the 13th only suffers from not being as good as Halloween, I Know What You Did Last Summer’s only real crime is that it’s not quite as good as Scream. But that doesn’t make it a bad movie.
In fact, going back and checking out the film recently, I was kind of shocked at how well it holds up—apart from the soundtrack, maybe. Kevin Williamson is a strong writer and had previously demonstrated with Scream that he has a deep love of the slasher genre. Strangely enough, I think that almost shows more in I Know What You Did Last Summer than his previous movie. Scream was a slasher, for sure, but its gimmick was really based around pointing out the conventions and tropes of that genre. I Know What You Did Last Summer does almost none of that. This is just a slasher in the classic tradition.
In fact, of all of the ‘90s teen slashers, I think I Know What You Did Last Summer has the most in common with the ‘80s movies that inspired of it. The DNA of things like Prom Night, Terror Train and Happy Birthday to Me are clearly felt in this feature. It’s a classic revenge plot, just like those other films. There was some inciting incident that caused someone to have a reason to want to kill our young cast, but we don’t know who and we’re not entirely sure why. That is the classic slasher formula of the 1980s in its purest form.
I had really forgotten how well the characterization held up when I went back and rewatched the film. Probably because of the way the movie is so often discussed, I was expecting something much more bland and uninteresting. Instead, the characters become interesting when we do that leap forward in time. While so many slashers have the initial flashback and then show the teens being completely fine with whatever prank they pulled or secret they tried to sweep under the rug, these kids are truly damaged by what they’ve done and they’re each dealing with it in different ways.
Julie has been consumed by it. She’s completely and totally unable to cope. Ray is a fisherman resigning to working all the time to keep his mind off things, Barry has drunk himself into a stupor, Helen was just smacked down by what happened to the point where she no longer had the motivation to fulfill any of her goals and dreams as she had previously set them.
These are not gimmicks discarded after the characters are re-introduced, either. The guilt and the way it has defined them sticks with each of them throughout the movie—or for however long they last, at least. When Helen is forced to take to the stage again, it’s not a victory. She doesn’t actually have any desire to do it because those were the dreams of a completely different person.
The killer himself is very interesting. One of the ways I Know What You Did Last Summer separates itself from other teen horror flicks of its era is that it’s set in a small, Eastern fishing community. In that respect, having the killer be a fisherman in a slicker makes sense and is definitely effective. On a deeper level, the fisherman ties into the 1990s fascination with urban legends. We had Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark reprinting these tales, Campfire Tales giving them direct adaptations, plus Candyman and Urban Legend both attempting to serve as kind of the ‘final statement’ on them. The story of “The Hook” is recited right at the opening of this movie. I was fascinated by that story as a kid, so to see it essentially take form in a feature like this was amazing to me.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is nowhere near as innovative or great a film as Scream, but that doesn’t inherently make it bad. I think if you go back and look at it now, it might actually surprise you. It’s a little meaner and, pardon the pun, a little slicker than most slashers of its era.
[Editors-‘s Note: This piece originally ran last summer but I am rerunning because it is Summer once again and the remake has generated a lot of buzz, both good and bad. As such, we would love to hear your thoughts on the original and your hopes for the remake].