[Horror Queers] The Enduring Appeal of ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’
Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for I Know What You Did Last Summer follow.***
Synopsis for I Know What You Did Last Summer: High school friends Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) are stalked by a hook-wielding killer one year after covering up a car accident in which they were involved.
Queer Aspect: There isn’t one!
I can only imagine the comments we’re going to get for this one Joe. “There’s nothing queer about I Know What You Did Last Summer!” But as I mentioned in last month’s article: instead of doing one Horror Queers article a month, we’re going to start doing two. One article will focus on a horror film with queer elements and we will discuss themes, public reception, etc., but the other film may not have queer elements at all! Call it an “off-cycle” post, if you will (which you did, because I stole the term from your tweet about it).
We’ll use a less restrictive set of guidelines to choose the second film of each month. It could be a movie with a high camp factor. It could be a film that has amassed a large queer following over the years. Or it could just be a horror film that one of us loves. There aren’t any rules here! It’s just another opportunity for us to talk regularly about horror movies. I’m not sure what will come of the “off-cycle” choices, but I am pretty stoked that we are using I Know What You Did Last Summer as our trial run, as odd of a choice it may be.
It’s no secret that I adore I Know What You Did Last Summer, flaws and all. I defended the film on this very site almost three years ago, but why choose it for a Horror Queers article? Two reasons: 1) It was the horror movie I watched the most while I was growing up (seriously, I had a recorded TNT screening of it that I practically wore out by the time I went to college) so it played a pretty big part in my love for the horror genre and 2) I’ve found that it has amassed a rather sizable gay following over the years. I don’t have any concrete evidence for that claim, but it seems to frequently get brought up in conversations I have with gay horror fans my age (I was born in 1989). Gay kids of the ‘90s really seem to love this film, and I want to know why. I don’t mean to overgeneralize here, but surely it can’t just be me, can it? Bueller? Bueller?
Why do gay men love this movie? Let’s start small: why do I love this movie? This isn’t the film that caused me to start thinking that I might be gay (that would be Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, a film that caused 9-year-old Trace to develop an enormous crush on Elijah Wood), but I’m pretty sure Ryan Phillippe in the locker room has something to do with it, even if he doesn’t bare his buttocks like he does in the wonderfully trashy Cruel Intentions.
Don’t discount the presence of teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. either, though if anything I’d say I’m more envious of him for marrying Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom he met while filming this movie. Throw in Jennifer Love Hewitt, famous at the time for the hit Fox series Party of Five, as the film’s Final Girl Julie James and it’s a teen dream cast. Two gorgeous male leads in Barry (Phillippe) and Ray (Prinze Jr.) and well, one really strong (and sassy) female lead in Gellar’s Helen. I have nothing against Hewitt, but I’ve always found Julie James to be an underwhelming Final Girl. Hewitt is totally fine in what is, quite frankly, a poorly-written role.
Joe, do you share my unreasonable adoration for this film? Or do you, like so many other commenters here on Bloody Disgusting, find it unoriginal and dull? And I can’t believe I got through 500 words without mentioning Gellar’s epic chase scene. What about the extreme focus on cleavage in the film and the overall lack of gore? Tell me what you think!
Oh I will gladly talk about The Faculty if we’re sticking with 90s horror because I had an unhealthy fascination with Josh Harnett’s odd bowl-cut throughout the 1998 holiday season.
I’ll confess that I’ve long had a soft spot for I Know What You Did Last Summer (IKWYDLS moving forward – because Jebus my fingers just cramped up). Upon a recent rewatch, I will note that I can understand why adult horror fans may find this a frustrating entry in the second cycle of slasher films in the 90s, though; the plotting by Scream’s Kevin Williamson is…inept to say the least. There’s a lot of patience testing, flimsy characters, missing accents and, yes, a truly shitty Final Girl in Love-Hew’s Julie.
With that said, you can drive a Mack truck through the plot holes and 1-dimensional characters of tons of horror films, so it’s not as though IKNWYDLS is a particularly egregious example (for true stand-out examples, see 1998’s Urban Legend or 2001’s Valentine – both of which may appear in a future installment).
When I think of IKWYDLS, I immediately turn to SMG’s epic chase scene. While other aspects of the film may not hold up well, watching TV’s one and only Buffy running around barefoot in a seafoam green dress for what has to be a 7-10 minute chase is the height of slasher delight. A huge part of my appreciation undoubtedly tracks down to my undying love for the Joss Whedon series (I wrote my MA on Buffy), but this kind of seemingly never-ending chase is unheard of in other slashers. Contrast this with something like the Friday The 13th franchise, which primarily just features Jason murdering people in two seconds. 90s teen slashers perfected the long chase sequence and IKWYDLS is the pinnacle, followed closely by Sidney’s escape from the cop car in Scream 2.
But I’m not answering your question about the gay following for this film. I certainly think it exemplifies the WB-ification of teen horror with its cast of hot white hotties (because diverse casting was still in its infancy in 1997?!). Part of the reason the slasher cycle revamp worked was because of the cross-over appeal between teen shows and horror films, so it may sense to cast familiar hotties and up and comers. Plus they come cheap if you get them while their stars are on the ascent!
I will freely admit that the proclivity of flesh on display doesn’t hurt the film’s memorabilia quotient. I had kind of forgotten about Love-Hew’s boobalicious wardrobe until I was visually confronted by them…frequently and seemingly in 3D. I honestly can’t tell if the wardrobe department hated these young actresses or was staffed entirely by pedophiles preying on barely legal teen starlets, but holy ta-tas (particularly in the climax which hilariously sees Julie take her shirt off while knee deep in ice to ensure her chest is on display). It such an oddly desperate thing for a film with absolutely zero nudity to do.
Now, as for the boys…
I was a still-in-the-closet HS student when this film came out, and I definitely lied to myself about the real reason why I coveted Ryan and Freddie’s arms and pecs in those muscle tanks. I’m willing to bet that more than a few junior gays who saw the film were hoping for a few more shower sequences and a few less bulky fisherman sweaters. What’s interesting is that I definitely recall thinking about how jacked Phillippe and Prinze Jr’s were back in 1997, but in 2018 terms they look like scrawny boys. Compare their physiques to modern day male stars like the Chrises four – Pratt, Evans, Hemsworth and Pine – and the increased sexualization of male bodies is real! No wonder I’ve got some top tier body image problems.
One other queer-friendly aspect of the film is Williamson’s trademark witty and self-referential banter. I’ll confess that I found it a bit more forced and grating compared to Williamson’s work on the Scream franchise, but the bitchiness and one-liners are pretty quotable. I know I enjoy SMG and Bridgitte Wilson-Sampras (Elsa)’s quippy rejoinders.
Trace, do you think the dialogue contributes to the film’s enduring appeal? Does the presence of gay-and-dating-Ellen-at-the-time Anne Heche contribute to IKWYDLS’ queer IQ (also, question: why is she the only one affecting a Southern accent?). And I didn’t get to your gore-free question, so I’ll kick it back to you.
Bah! I always forget that you’re old. You were in high school when IKWYDLS came out, I was in third grade. Also, I completely believe that the inspiration for Courteney Cox’s atrocious bangs in Scream 3 was Josh Hartnet’s haircut in The Faculty…or possibly Famke Janssen’s. So shame on you for being infatuated with that hair. Whoops! I’m getting off-topic.
Anyway, while I do agree that the bitchy quips from Gellar and Wilson are the highlights of Williamson’s screenplay, there really isn’t that much meta-ness or self-referential humor going on here, so I’m not quite sure what you found grating in that regard. I always thought IKWYDLS was actually pretty classy when compared to other slasher films. Williamson wrote the film to mirror slasher films of the ‘80s (which might explain the ineptness you mentioned, by the way). Yes, the women are dressed ridiculously and Sarah Michelle Gellar prancing around town in those heels makes the criticisms of Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World seem ridiculous by comparison, but there’s not a lot that is over the top about IKWYDLS.
Gillespie explains in the commentary that he didn’t want to make a gratuitously violent film and therefore filmed almost no on-screen blood during filming. It wasn’t until re-shoots (after production had wrapped) that Max’s (Johnny Galecki) death was added in and a splatter of blood was added to Elsa’s throat slash. I wonder if Gillespie had spoken much with Williamson about his creative vision for the film. Maybe Williamson did imagine it would be more of a throwback to the trashy slashers of the ‘80s?
I certainly understand that IKWYDLS is far from a perfect film, but it played such an integral part of my youth that I can’t help but love it. I mean, I used to watch the IKWYDLS trailer from my VHS of Anaconda every time I watched the J.Lo creature feature (and to be clear: I watched Anaconda a lot…..I have a thing for snakes). If I’m being honest, I pretty much love all ‘90s slashers, especially Urban Legend, which earns points solely for Rebecca Gayheart’s batshit insane monologue during the climax. That is a discussion for another time, but how has her character not served as inspiration for any queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race yet?
Back to IKWYDLS, I completely disagree with you on its quality (simply compare my 5-star Letterboxd score to your 3-star score….I have no shame!). Sure on an initial viewing Ben Willis’ identity totally comes out of nowhere, but it does make sense! Overall this film is light-years better than both Urban Legend and Valentine.
We are in agreement on the utter uselessness of Hewitt’s Julie (at least until the sequel, where she has more of a take-charge personality) and Prinze’s Ray, though. A big reason that the finale doesn’t work particularly well is that the wrong people make it to the end. Everyone I ever talk to about IKWYDLS laments Helen’s death and wishes that she had been the final girl. My counterpoint to that, however: would Helen’s chase scene have been anywhere as effective if she had survived that grueling chase scene? I argue that it wouldn’t and that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation had she survived.
But yes, Gellar’s chase scene is undoubtedly one of the best chase scenes in horror movie history, and I’m glad that you and I share a mutual adoration with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (we’re learning so many things about each other in these posts despite never having met in person!). I would go so far as to argue that the last 40 minutes of the IKWYDLS (from Barry’s death onward) are pretty spectacular, mostly thanks to John Debney’s superb score which I totally listen to on road trips (I have a problem, I know). I’m so glad you brought up the police car scene in Scream 2 as well though! It’s clear that Williamson knows how to write a chase scene (and that his directors are really good at filming them), so why the fuck hasn’t he had a screenplay produced since 2011’s Scream 4?
Lastly, I am so happy you brought up Anne Heche, who is without a doubt having the most fun in this movie. She’s the only one with an accent because she lives in the sticks, Joe! Didn’t you hear Gellar’s inflection when she said that?
Sidebar: Ellen DeGeneres is the first prominently gay actress that I remember being aware of, courtesy of her very public relationship and subsequent break-up with Heche. I’ll confess that what I remember more than their relationship is Heche’s alter-ego Celestia, the daughter of God and half-sister of Jesus Christ (look it up if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I remember watching an interview she had with Barbara Walters around the year 2000 and thinking that gay people must be crazy, because all I knew about Heche was that she was gay and suffered from mental illness. Of course I know better now, but every time she pops up in IKWYDLS I think about how narrow-minded I was back then and wonder if the media’s portrayal of Heche played a part in my reluctance to admit that I was gay.
I’ve prattled on and on here and this section of mine could probably use some editing, but I’ll let you close us out Joe. What was it about Williamson’s screenplay that you found so grating? Did you know that the character of Barry was meant to be a 6’2” hardbody but the casting director was won over by Ryan Phillippe’s audition? And what makes this film so much more inept than countless slashers that came out in the ‘80s? Why do older audiences cut those films some slack but not IKWYDLS?
Geez, you millennials are so darn verbose! I should have known that we would come to blows over a childhood favourite of yours, though I’ll confess that I didn’t think it would a film in which the villain is a fisherman in a town whose prosperity seems to depend entirely on fishing.
I didn’t mean to suggest that I found Williamson’s script insufferable or anything, but it does pale in comparison to Scream and Scream 2 (the two Williamson efforts that bookend it). This is clearly a more conventional slasher effort – on par with its ’80s predecessors – so the attempts at self-aware humour (Dawson’s Beach? Ugh) land with more of a thud because they stand out and not in a good way. When IKWYDLS plays it straight, à la Helen’s chase scene, the film shines. When it leans too much into the meta, self-referential stuff it, I groan. I don’t remember being all that bothered by it initially though, so perhaps this more of a hindsight issue.
The grating aspect was how genuinely unlikable so many of the characters are. I have a lot of goodwill for the actors, but for the first 30 to 40 minutes, my notes were filled with questions about what they have in common or why anyone, particularly Julie and Ray, put up with Barry. I’ll cut Phillippe and his abs a lot of slack and he’s clearly a star in the making in this role, but as a character, the guy is a TOTAL shitheel. One of my biggest complaints about slasher films is a cast populated by people I yearn to see murdered; I want to root for my protagonists and my Final Girl(s), not count the minutes until their bodies end up as crab food.
Whether or not IKWYDLS is better or worse than the ’80s films is likely dependent on your relationship to them. (This might be a good time to plug the slasher bracket that I helped create that’s running throughout late May on Twitter that matches ’70s/’80s films against ’90s/’00s in a battle for supremacy. Follow the hashtag #GrimSlasherMadness to vote daily starting May 14!)
Personally, I have a really strong connection to the old slashers because they were MY introduction to horror. By the time IKWYDLS came out in 1997, I had carved my through nearly all of the major 80s franchises and most of the oddball standalones, collecting favourites along the way. The sudden revitalization of this and the Scream series felt like a great throwback to the heyday, but thinking back, the ’90s renaissance always felt like a shallower version of the original slasher cycle, almost as though they were just aping what came before.
Watching the film now and without unnecessarily comparing it to other films, I see I Know What You Did Last Summer a little more clearly for what it is: a fun film with more gaping plot holes than I remember and some iffy character work. It’s definitely still an enjoyable watch, though…in spite of the charisma-free performance by J. Love-Hew at its center. Gosh she’s dreadful in this!
Next on Horror Queers: we’re back in a few weeks with more queer-oriented programming. Having spent so much time confessing our tortured reticence to come out of the closet, we’ll face the issue head on with a screening of Stephen Dunn’s 2015 horrific coming out drama Closet Monster. And just to keep things extra icky, we’ll throw in Carter Smith’s 2006 short Bugcrush.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video for $3.99.
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles:
- April 2018: The Hunger
- March 2018: The Covenant/The Brotherhood
- February 2018: Insidious: Chapter 2
- January 2018: The Skin I Live In