On Independence Day, many Americans host barbecues or watch fireworks. I watch I Know What You Did Last Summer, the much-maligned Kevin Williamson-penned slasher film that tried to cash in on the success of Scream (which was also written by Kevin Williamson) in 1997. I’ve made my love for I Know What You Did Last Summer known in the past, and it always bums me out to see so much hate for it. There has been so much backlash against the film online, especially on this website, and most of it I don’t agree with. Is it a perfect movie? No. But it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone says it is. As a matter of fact, it’s not even bad.
Most of the film’s flaws are forgivable. I can look past the hefty amount of suspension of disbelief required when the killer is able to move a body and dozens of crabs out of a car trunk in a matter of minutes without anyone seeing him. Hell, I can even overlook the fact that he is able to display 8″x12″ prints from pictures he took that very same morning. Those are minor quibbles in an otherwise solid slasher. Unfortunately, during my annual rewatch this year, I realized one thing about the film that simply doesn’t work, but before I get to that let me explain why I love I Know What You Did Last Summer, which turns 20(!) in October.
I have seen I Know What You Did Last Summer at least 50 times. I was eight years old when it was released and I wasn’t allowed to watch it because it was rated R, so I would watch the trailer over and over on my VHS copy of Anaconda (Other trailers on that VHS? The Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, The Mask of Zorro and Masterminds). Side note: the trailer for the film is great and you should watch it, especially if you like Kula Shaker. Anyway, a few years later TNT started showing I Know What You Did Last Summer once or twice a month and I recorded it on a blank VHS, eventually wearing it out because I was watching it twice a week (along with a TBS showing of Deep Blue Sea that I had also recorded). This movie was a big part of my pre-teen years and I can’t really explain why I gravitated toward it the way I did, but I just did.
The Alamo Drafthouse (aka the best movie theater in the world) has a Signature Series called Terror Tuesday in which they show a different horror movie every week at 10pm. Joseph Ziemba, the programmer of that series, clearly understands the greatness of I Know What You Did Last Summer, as he selected it to be The Terror Tuesday screening on July 4th of this year. Since I was never able to see I Know What You Did Last Summer in a theater, I jumped at the chance to attend this screening.
***SPOILERS for a 20-year-old film below***
Have you ever noticed that you catch more things in movies that you may not have noticed before when you see them in a theater? I suppose it’s because your attention can’t be diverted like it can at home. So on what was probably my 51st or so viewing of the film I noticed something that I had never noticed before: Julie James is a terrible Final Girl. In fact, she gives Pam from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II a run for their money as the worst final girl ever. It took just one scene for me to come to this realization:
This is a minute-long scene in a 101-minute movie but it impacts the film in a big way. It shows just how much of a better character Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar, flawless) is than Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Helen is a character who, at this point in the film, has lost everything (her career, her friends, her future) and hides her torment behind a facade. This is the one moment in the film where she lets her wall down and opens up to her former best friend. Rather than reciprocate, Julie just shuts her down, seemingly closing out her best friend forever. It’s a real dick move and loses any sympathy viewers may have had for Julie up until that point.
Throughout the duration of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Julie is either pouting or whining or screaming. Her behavior is understandable in the beginning. She was forced into a pact of secrecy after her and her friends disposed of a body. She then spent her freshman year of college in a severe depression which impacted her social life and her grades. She cut off ties with everyone from her hometown, including her own mother. It’s an understandable reaction after such a traumatic event. However, her stubbornness to reconnect with her friends, or at least Helen, makes her unlikable to viewers and therefore an unsuccessful Final Girl.
The Final Girl, a coin termed by Carol Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, should exhibit the following characteristics:
- She is typically sexually unavailable or virginal.
- She does not partake in drugs or other illegal activities.
- She will occasionally have a shared history with the killer.
- She is the “investigating consciousness” of the film, moving the narrative forward and, as such, she exhibits intelligence, curiosity, and vigilance.
Nowhere in Clover’s definition of a Final Girl does she say the Final Girl has to be likable, but that is usually a trait inherent of the title. Other than being virginal (she has sex with her boyfriend on the beach before they mow down Ben Willis), Julie epitomizes the Final Girl trope. Julie doesn’t do anything downright despicable in I Know What You Did Lat Summer, and screenwriter Kevin Williamson positions her as the obvious Final Girl in the first act when she is the only one of the main characters to object to disposing of Ben’s body. That is at least relatable, but once the film flashes forward a year she becomes the worst character in the film. She’s rude to her mother and she’s rude to her ex-boyfriend Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.), but the final straw comes after the above conversation with Helen. By that point, all of the audience’s sympathy has moved over to Helen, which is why her epic chase scene is so effective. By the time she dies, you’re just left with Julie and Ray, arguably the two least interesting characters in the film. Does anyone particularly care if Julie makes it off of that boat alive? Not particularly.
That last statement is a bit of a stretch but brings me to my next point: Julie is absolutely helpless during the climactic boat scene.
Julie doesn’t do anything to help herself here. Rather than fight back, she runs the entire time, relying on her ex-boyfriend to save the day. It’s a bit anticlimactic that Julie isn’t the one to defeat Ben Willis (yet, as she will get her turn in the sequel). Robbing her of this victory and making her passive during the final battle also robs the audience of the chance to share in Julie’s catharsis. As a Final Girl, Julie is underwhelming, to say the least.
Is Julie James the worst Final Girl in horror history? Probably not. To make that statement I would have to have seen every horror movie ever made. And I do think that Pam from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and Laurie in Zombie’s Halloween II are worse than her, but I finally understand why so many viewers loathe Julie James. It’s even worse when the character who should have lived (Helen) dies so early on. Helen is a much deeper and likable character. Julie is boring and useless. This is of course through no fault of Hewitt. The character is simply written that way. It’s not a bad thing that we care for Helen. On the contrary, it’s actually great and makes the film that much more effective. It just would have been better if Williamson had put as much effort into fleshing out Julie as he did with Helen.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you sympathize with Julie? Or do you find yourself wishing that Helen was the Final Girl instead? Let us know in the comments below!