Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The teen superhero movie New Mutants, from Fault In Our Stars director Josh Boone, has been postponed again. In its absence, we’re looking at YA adaptations.
Lois Duncan hated the movie they made out of I Know What You Did Last Summer. She wasn’t alone, of course; plenty of film critics hated the movie, too, some for reasons not so different than hers. Duncan, whose novels about teenage life made her a pioneering voice in the genre of young-adult fiction, wasn’t above paperback thrills. But her version of this particular story, published in 1973, was a different grade of pulp. Following four high-school friends who hit a boy on a bicycle during a joyride, cover up the crime, and then are sent a threatening letter by someone who, yes, knows what they did the previous summer, the book married teenage melodrama to an urgent suspense plot. Its big-screen adaptation, released 24 years later, didn’t exactly jettison those elements, but it did filter them through a disreputable new lens: the slasher movie, that much-maligned, intrinsically ’80s genre of promiscuous teenagers stalked and elaborately butchered by masked killers. Duncan was “appalled” that they had reshaped her premise to fit that template—in part, she disclosed in an interview, because she took no guilty pleasure in seeing kids gleefully killed, having lost her own 18-year-old daughter in an unsolved murder.
On screen, I Know What You Did Last Summer may be dumbed down and trashed up, but it’s still slicker and a little better crafted than the average Reagan-era rampage. The acting is better, too—the guilty quartet of teens includes primetime starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt, TV vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Gellar’s future Cruel Intentions co-star Ryan Phillippe. (Their ranks are rounded out by Freddie Prinze Jr., clearly the weak link in this chain of TV ringers and teen-movie idols.) Haunted by the crime that brought their carefree final summer before college to a screeching halt, the estranged friends are reunited a year later in their sleepy North Carolina hometown when someone starts taunting them with the knowledge of what they did—dropping accusatory notes, stuffing bodies into car trunks, and giving them unwanted haircuts, before the hostility escalates to full-scale Michael Myers territory. The killer, who wields a shiny hook, is decked out in a slicker and hat—not the scariest getup, but useful for blending in when prowling a fishing community.
The script for the movie was written by Kevin Williamson, whose Scream (starring Hewitt’s Party Of Five castmate Neve Campbell) had revived the slasher movie less than a year earlier, briefly re-popularizing the very conventions it was skewering. There’s no satirical bent or self-conscious winking in I Know What You Did Last Summer, which plays its chickens-coming-home-to-roost scenario pretty straight. But Williamson, breaking from Duncan’s story even as he follows her general genre lead, works in mystery tropes here, too, introducing multiple suspects and red herrings. It’s a bit dysfunctional as a whodunit—the ultimate reveal packs absolutely none of the wallop of Scream’s climax. But those qualities work as a fun accent on the horror stuff, the usual feverish nighttime pursuits and eviscerations.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is no underappreciated classic; slasher fans will note that it doesn’t even deliver on gory goods (though the run-and-hide set-pieces from director Jim Gillespie are coherent and well-orchestrated). It’s reasonable, in other words, for Duncan to be ticked off at seeing her story repurposed into a Friday-night potboiler, even if plenty of pots boil, too, in the book, which features a shooting, an attempted strangling, and the reveal of a culprit whose identity only the youngest of readers wouldn’t see coming a mile away. But the movie does have its charms, and most of them, ironically, aren’t so far removed from the spirit of Duncan’s work as the “queen of teen thrillers;” maniac in fisherman garb aside, this is an enjoyably soapy suspense yarn about kids trying to escape their own bad decisions. Just three months later, Williamson would return to picturesque North Carolina for Dawson’s Creek, a teen drama without the killing spree—a show that possessed a little of Duncan’s creative DNA and subsequently passed it on to future WB and CW hits.