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I Know What You Did Last Summer at 25: Once Upon A ’90s Slasher Boom…

Some slasher movies from the past such as Halloween (1978) and Scream (1996) still resonate even by today’s standards. But some others such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, well, not so much.

Released on October 17, 1997, it was an immediate box-office hit upon its release, where it spent not one but three consecutive weekends in the top spot until Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers took over later. By the end of its theatrical run, it grossed over US$72 million and had a worldwide total of US$126 million. That was an incredible feat for a slasher movie that costs a measly US$17 million.

Back in 1997 when I first saw the movie, I did enjoy it a lot. It was fun and pacey enough. And most of all, I guess it worked well at the time due to the subconscious effects from the then-fresh 1990s slasher craze, thanks to the success of Scream a year earlier. You got to hand it to the studio (Columbia Pictures) for cashing in on the popularity of Scream fast enough and had a timely release with I Know What You Did Last Summer. Not to mention having Kevin Williamson, the man who wrote Scream, helps too.  He did a great job in both slasher movies, even though his meta take on the otherwise aforementioned done-to-death genre remains his finest hour in his screenwriting career.

(L-R) Freddie Prinze Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe in "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (1997)

I Know What You Did Last Summer, on the other hand, has none of the screenwriting brilliance that defined his work on Scream. But he sure knows how to make a bloody good time of a slasher movie. With the help of workmanlike direction from Jim Gillespie (and the only time I enjoyed his work since his subsequent movies like D-Tox and Venom — no, not that Venom — were all huge disappointments), Williamson’s script is filled with all the essential genre know-hows. It only runs for 101 minutes and has a storytelling hook, to begin with: Four teenage friends — Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry Cox (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze Jr.) — accidentally run over a man one night. Instead of calling the police like they are supposed to, they decide to get rid of the body by dumping him into the sea. They made a pact not to mention or talk about it ever again, even though Julie remains the only reluctant one in the group.

But one year after the incident, the past haunts them one by one, beginning with Julie receiving a note that said: “I Know What You Did Last Summer!“. From there, it’s a familiar slasher-movie route as the mysterious killer — all dressed up in a dark slicker and a bucket hat — starts stalking them. Like Michael Myers (knife) and Jason Voorhees (machete) before him, he kills his victims with his particular choice of weapon and that would be a fishing hook.

It’s pretty much a straightforward slasher movie from start to finish. Even the eventual revelation of who’s behind the bucket hat and slicker isn’t something that would make you go “I can’t believe he’s the one who did this” kind of reaction. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but serves its intended purpose as a typical slasher movie. Besides, slasher movies were already in decline by the time they entered the 1990s era and this was largely thanks to the oversaturation of the genre back in the ’80s. As mentioned earlier, the release of Scream helps revitalise the genre all over again and renewed audiences’ interest no matter from the older or younger generation to fill the seats in cinemas. Or to be exact, everything old is new again for I Know What You Did Last Summer and the nostalgia factor sure hit at the right time in 1997.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (1997)

The movie also introduced and established then-young stars including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar (although she was already known for her Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit series), Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr. All four stars did a good job in their respective roles.

Ironically, I Know What You Did Last Summer was not immediately greenlit when Kevin Williamson first wrote the script. But it wasn’t until the success of his follow-up screenplay in Scream finally got his prior script materialised into a film. The movie was also originally intended for Melissa Joan Hart of TV’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch fame to play Julie James. This is kind of hard to believe since Jennifer Love Hewitt owns the role in this movie. And yet, stranger things happened as Hewitt turned out to be originally auditioned for the role of Helen (!) and Sarah Michelle Gellar, in the meantime, wanted to play Julie. Imagine if the roles they have initially auditioned for were successful, I can imagine I Know What You Did Last Summer would end up differently on how we see the characters. I’m glad that didn’t happen, even though it might be interesting to see whether the original casting decision is bold and divisive or maybe, better than expected.

Revisiting I Know What You Did Last Summer again after 25 years have passed (can’t believe how time just flies in the blink of an eye), I have to admit it was a product of its time. The movie doesn’t have that lasting impact or should I say, aged well as the years go by.

The success of the movie subsequently spawned two vastly inferior sequels including I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998) and later, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer in 2006. There’s even a 2021 namesake series, albeit a short-lived one that lasted only one season on Amazon Prime Video. And that is not all, as I Know What You Did Last Summer continues the ’90s slasher craze and beyond — for better or worse — with movies like Urban Legend (1998) and its sequels, Valentine (2001) and Wrong Turn (2003), just to name a few.