One of the biggest films of the 1990s is now streaming on Netflix. I Know What You Did Last Summer starring Sarah Michelle Gellar became available on January 1. The 1997 slasher movie was a highlight in Gellar’s career, as well as that of a whole crew of hot stars of the time. The film co-starred Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr. and several other actors who did not have three-part names. But seriously, it also featured Ryan Phillippe, who would go on to Cruel Intentions with Sarah Michelle Gellar a few years later. In a smaller role there was Johnny Galecki of The Big Bang Theory and Anne Heche shows up for a few scenes. It’s a very 1990s movie, and it’s great.
As a film, I Know What You Did Last Summer is straightforward. Several teen archetypes (the jock, the parade queen, the shy one, Freddie Prinze Jr.) go for a drunken joyride along the North Carolina coast. They accidentally hit someone. In a panic, they dump the body in the ocean and make a pact not to tell anyone ever. A year later, bodies start piling up and there’s a scary guy with a hook hand. Like many great slashers, the story is not really about the identity of the killer or his motivation. It’s about the guilt and torment of the teens being hunted down. And of course, about gory kills. Sarah Michelle Gellar is murdered while the sounds of the parade she once was the star of muffles her screams.
I Know What You Did Last Summer received mixed reviews on release. That’s not at all unusual for a slasher film. While examples of the horror sub-genre often have enormous impact on culture, they usually are not critically well regarded. That’s why when you see a hockey mask, you automatically think of Jason from the Friday the 13th films. But you’re never going to see a slasher win any Academy Awards (okay, Silence of the Lambs doesn’t count). I Know What You Did Last Summer currently holds a 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great. But according to Box Office Mojo, it is also the seventh highest-grossing slasher film of all time. The major slasher franchises can frequently knock out seven movies or more, so the competition is pretty huge. It was certainly a big win for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s career.
At the time, one of the critical complaints about the film was that it repeated earlier slashers too much. In retrospect, there’s a reason for that. The film was written by Kevin Williamson, loosely adapting a novel by Lois Duncan. Williamson may not be a household name, but he is one of the primary architects of modern teen culture. Aside from I Know What You Did Last Summer, he wrote the previous year’s Scream. Williamson also wrote Scream 2, Scream 4 and the recent reboot. He created the seminal teen melodrama Dawson’s Creek, which gets an Easter Egg shoutout from Sarah Michelle Gellar. He wrote Robert Rodriguez’s high school alien invasion flick The Faculty. In the 2000s, he created The Vampire Diaries.
In short, Kevin Williamson created a lot of what we now think of as teen pop culture. His specific blend of hyper-articulate, magazine cover ready teens and self-referential plots have become a mainstay of films since. If I Know What You Did Last Summer felt like it hit the beats of earlier films, critics were missing the point. It was an intentional revival of a style that had fallen out of favor. Along with Scream, it basically reactivated an entire sub-genre and brought it back to theaters. Stars like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewitt became huge based on movies like these. It’s no surprise fans are now checking it out decades later on Netflix.
I Know What You Did Last Summer came at an interesting time in the actress’s career. Sarah Michelle Gellar had just barely begun Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that would make her a horror icon. She became one of the It Girls of the 1990s after the double hit of starring on both a critically acclaimed TV series and a horror blockbuster. She would win MTV Movie awards, host Saturday Night Live and continue Buffy for seven seasons. A few years later, she reunited with Ryan Phillippe for Cruel Intentions. Cruel Intentions is currently in the process of rebooting as a TV series. I Know What You Did Last Summer already did the same for Amazon Prime. The reboot’s cancellation was recently announced, which perhaps has curious fans checking out the original movies on Netflix today.