20 Movies 20 Years Later

At The Genre's Peak, One Teen Thriller Didn't Take Anything Seriously — Except The Teenagers

"I Know What You Did Last Summer" turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

When I Know What You Did Last Summer hit theaters in (surprisingly) the fall of 1997, critics couldn't help but compare it to Scream. The self-referential slasher film had been released just a year earlier, and penned by the same screenwriter — Kevin Williamson, who went on to work on such titles as The Faculty, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and two out of the three Scream sequels, not to mention creating Dawson's Creek.

Thanks to Williamson and a rotating cast of young actors worthy of their own '90s Brat Pack moniker, the teen thriller became a defining genre of the late '90s and early 2000s. I Know What You Did Last Summer, directed by Jim Gillespie and loosely based on a novel of the same name, didn't quite live up to Scream among critics, with several reviews declaring Williamson's earlier effort superior. However, it made a bang at the box office and became a cultural touchstone all its own. (Even people who haven't seen the film have been known to reference its wordy title.)

One of the film's most appealing qualities is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Co-star Ryan Phillippe said it best earlier this year when he called it simply "a good time at the movies," adding that films in this genre "had a sense of humor, they were suspenseful but they're not gory." It also retains some of Williamson's signature self-awareness. The central quartet of teenagers, for example, is terrorized by a killer with a hook after telling an eerily similar story around a campfire.

Interestingly, those very teenagers are quite possibly the only thing the movie does take seriously. Even Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, who called the film a "formula slasher," couldn't help but admit that the protagonists "talk like living, breathing young adults, not caricatures."

At the start of the film, football player Barry Cox (Phillippe) declares himself and his friends to be in their "last summer of immature adolescent decadence." It's precisely this immature adolescent decadence that ensures his prediction comes true. While cruising through their seaside town on the Fourth of July, a drunken Barry distracts his friend Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.), who drives Barry's BMW into a pedestrian.

After much panic and disagreement, Barry and Ray decide with their girlfriends Helen and Julie (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt) to dump the man's body and take the secret "to our grave." Although they make the decision to save their futures, none of their post-grad plans end up working out. Ambitious Julie's grades suffer in college, and she distances herself from her concerned mother. Beauty queen Helen moves briefly to New York, but returns by the next summer to work in her family's store. Barry and Ray also remain in town, with Ray becoming a fisherman like his absent father. Both couples break up, and friendships are strained.

"What happened between us?" Helen asks Julie at one point. "We used to be best friends."

"We used to be a lot of things," Julie responds.

While most college-age people are (hopefully) not racked with guilt over a hit-and-run, these feelings of alienation and disillusionment, especially when forced to "grow up" and face the "real world," are hardly exclusive to fiction. Teen angst and quarter-life crises continue to be popular fodder for film and television because, even in the most over-the-top and unrealistic of circumstances, there's at least a grain of truth. The film treats the characters' feelings honestly, even if the subsequent events aren't quite as believable.

When Julie returns from college to find a note that reads simply, "I know what you did last summer," the characters are thrown into solving a mystery to keep their secret from getting out, and, eventually, to save themselves from murder.

Their parents and the police, meanwhile, remain either completely absent or utterly useless. Helen's father, for instance, is so absorbed in watching baseball that he takes no notice of either his daughter or the killer who has just walked into his house. Later, when Helen screams that there's a murder taking place during the Fourth of July beauty pageant, no one takes her seriously — including a policeman, who continues to mock her for the outburst when he drives her home. When Helen pounds on the door of her family's store seeking safety from the killer, her older sister is comically undisturbed, even annoyed.

Contrasted with the clueless adults, the movie presents its four main teenagers as the smartest people in town. Lawrence Van Gelder even pointed out this grown-up uselessness in his New York Times review of the film.

"Though a killer attired in foul weather gear like a Gloucester seafarer off a package of frozen fish sticks has been gutting some of the local youth with a baling hook, their parents, employers and landlords apparently don't miss them enough to notify the police, who don't go to work until the final moments," he wrote, adding, "No matter. This isn't real life."

While the depiction may be exaggerated, plenty of teens who feel misunderstood or ignored by the adults in their lives might disagree with that final statement.

In the years since its release, I Know What You Did Last Summer has remained iconic enough to yield two sequels and even an announced reboot. Although many viewers may be satisfied to think of it as merely a "guilty pleasure," good for a few thrills and chills on a Friday night in, it may not be half as fun if every character were as preposterous as its plot. Anyone who's been forced to grow up a bit sooner than they were ready will likely spot some truth amidst the twists and turns.

I Know What You Did Last Summer is available on Amazon, Google PlayiTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: Columbia Pictures

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