Why I Love… #117: I Know What You Did Last Summer

Year: 1997

Director: Jim Gillespie

Stars: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe

There are movies that I’ve included in this series based on their artistic prowess, on their merit, on their phenomenal influence on the medium of film and my experience of it.

And then there are other movies.

I’m not a fan of the term ‘guilty pleasure’. It tells you that you ought to feel shame for enjoying the things that you do. That what you love is inherently wrong. My love for Jim Gillespie’s post-Scream slasher movie I Know What You Did Last Summer is guilt-free. But it is quite specific. So here goes; time to justify something that, really, requires no justification.

I missed Scream. I was too young for it (13 on its release and it was brandished with an 18 certificate). I heard it was a cool, satirical take on the horror movie and I liked the idea of that, but it wasn’t to be, at least, not yet. A year later I was too young for the theatrical release of this movie, but by the time it hit home video I was in it’s 15 certificate catchment. And home video rental is a part of my irrepressible nostalgia for this picture.

It’s something that’s hard to convey to those who have grown up recently with seemingly everything available digitally somehow, because it was tactile. The process of browsing a video rental store. Of picking up and scanning the back of a chunky VHS cassette case, especially those over-sized ones that rentals often had. The slightly coarse texture of the plastic on the cover. The stickers masking key parts of the artwork or plot synopsis. There was a sense of choice and possibility that I’ve never found when scrolling indecisively through Netflix or the like, especially if your local outlet wasn’t a bespoke or comprehensive rental store. Mine wasn’t. It was a couple of shelves in a small convenience store. What was on offer was therefore limited and anything that met our mandate (sexy and/or violent) was prized.

For me personally the golden years of video rental were ’97 through ’00 and I Know What You Did Last Summer was a frequent fixture. It met our above-stated criteria. It starred Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar (confirmed sexy; awful magazines told us so), and there was someone called Jennifer Love Hewitt who kept wiggling her low-cut top at us as she fled the movie’s hook-wielding maniac (violence; check). We knew it wasn’t high-art, but it showed us young people Scooby-Dooing an entertaining little mystery and the magazines and television told us this was cool. I never considered it a *great* movie as I understood others to be… but it definitely went into the ‘good’ column for us. Trusted. Dependable. In a double-bill with Cruel Intentions, it made a solid evening’s entertainment.

Gellar and Ryan Phillippe were in that, too, giving a sense of cross-pollination; of, fleetingly, an emerging outcrop of new stars. And there were other faces we recognised. The ’80s had had their own Brat Pack (Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez et al), and now we had ours, only ours were the cast of Dawson’s CreekCharmed or Joss Whedon shows. Beautiful twenty-somethings pretending to be meddlesome teenagers and we wholly bought into that lie. Their longevity largely wasn’t meant to be, but we worked with what we were given.

Years went by and IKWYDLS was filed as, ultimately, a fairly poor horror flick from a less-than-vintage decade and what little currency it had disappeared. Until about three or four years ago when, in a fit of nostalgia, I sought it out again. Now I’d seen and enjoyed Scream and what’s more I’d seen plenty of the slasher movies that Scream was satirising. What I was surprised to find was that IKWYDLS – from the same scribe, Kevin Williamson – didn’t particularly satirise the genre at all. It never was part of that self-reflexive, mocking wave. The closest it gets is referencing The Silence of the Lambs on the trip to visit Melissa Egan (Anne Heche!). Gillespie’s flick plays it completely straight. And I kinda prefer that to the self-congratulatory tone of Ghostface and co.

It brought everything back, too. The soundtrack switched on memories of a summer I’d forgotten about (especially Kula Shaker’s kinda naff cover of “Hush”). I grew up in a coastal town. Okay, it was totally different to Southport, North Carolina (I’m talking about the Devonshire coast in England), but the vaguely nautical setting suddenly opened the floodgates. I could smell the sea air and I connected it with the balmy feel of hot summer nights. Of having crushes and not being sure what being a grown-up was going to look like yet. This last especially is echoed in the concerns of these characters. When Helen tells Barry (Phillippe) her plans for the two of them it becomes, on revisit, strangely bittersweet considering their fates… am I wrong??

Little things set off waves of pleasure. The oh-so-serious DUM-DUMs on the score at the beginning when the camera swirls moodily over a snaking clifftop road. Barry’s hilariously bratty bad attitude. Prince, Jr’s earnestness (and hair). How Gellar’s Helen feels like a proto Krysta Now (if only she’d managed to survive Ben Willis’ iron-hooked fury…); the suddenly kitsch plot inconsistencies. In this regard I’m talking about enjoying how improbably fast a trunk full of crabs is cleared up. Or how the murder of Max (John Galecki) actually makes no narrative sense whatsoever.

But my rediscovered love for IKWYDLS isn’t fueled solely by so-bad-it’s-good irony. There’s a bit of that, sure, but I genuinely think the movie deserves at least a little more credit than it generally receives, especially when you look at how honestly-bad A LOT of ’80s slashers actually are. I might gleefully cackle at Julie screaming, “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” but I also kinda love it. This is glossy and efficient and rather enjoyably dumb, but also effective. Helen’s commendable-if-failed attempt to flee from Willis (Muse Watson) is a solidly staged set piece. And Willis himself is an imposing figure, face masked by the dark hood of his slicker like the tall visage of Death himself. It’s pretty menacing.

I feel like I’m rambling a little incoherently now, totting up the film’s merits both intentionally orchestrated or otherwise, but the sentiment is all the same. The good and the bad intermingle; it’s the mixture that makes it work so well for me.

We all have our nostalgic pleasure pieces. Hell, nostalgia is the reason some genuinely dreadful ’80s favourites remain favourites, in spite of their clear deficiencies. That glaze covers all manner of blemishes. I might watch a digital file of this film when I revisit, but by the end I wish I could pop it out of a VCR and snap it back in a rental case with a satisfying click-pop.

Like I said, no shame at all. I hope one of the collector’s labels (most likely Arrow Video, let’s face it) helps others to rediscover this one. A UK bluray release would be warmly welcomed in this house. And if you’re still mildly appalled at this choice, don’t worry, I’m sure the next one will be suitably arty.


2 thoughts on “Why I Love… #117: I Know What You Did Last Summer

  1. Never saw this but you’re so right about the joy of the video rental. Once you picked the movie you were invested no matter how good it was

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