Note: Spoilers ahead.
Not that long into the first episode of Amazon’s new take on the teen classic I Know What You Did Last Summer, we see a dick. Said dick belongs to a teenage boy peeing in a pool at a raucous party. And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the series, which is rife with ketamine use, full-frontal nudity, Lil Xan, and increasingly creative ways for beautiful high-schoolers to meet their maker.
If Lois Duncan was “appalled” when her 1973 young adult novel was turned into a slasher film in 1997, we’re not sure how she’d react to this balls-out (literally) sex- and gore-fest, the first four episodes of which premiere Friday, October 15th. “What I, personally, have a problem with are the stories — usually on television, where action takes the place of introspection — where violence is sensationalized and made to seem thrilling rather than terrible,” the late author once said. “As the mother of a murdered child, I don’t find violent death something to squeal and giggle about.”
It bears noting how Duncan’s original story has been ratcheted up over the decades. The slim thriller initially told a pretty simple tale of a group of teens who accidentally hit a boy on a bike with their car, anonymously call the cops, then make a pact never to tell. The boy dies, and a year later, the de facto Final Girl of the group, Julie James, gets a note in the mail with the title’s ominous words emblazoned across it. There follow a few attempts on the friend group’s lives (in true slasher fashion, the first to fall victim are the frat boy and the bikini model), but, in the end, everyone survives the machinations of the would-be killer — who turns out to be the bicycle boy’s brother — and learns a very important lesson about the consequences of vehicular manslaughter.
In 1997, during the great slasher heyday of the Nineties, Duncan’s story got a makeover, with a group of that era’s teen idols (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr.) falling prey to a fisherman with a hooked hand after pushing him into the sea following a hit and run. In this context, the wronged party slots himself in the slasher mold: He’s impossible to kill, supernaturally fast and strong, and runs on an unquenchable thirst to murder teenagers. Largely critically panned, the film became a cult classic, a byproduct of an era during which serial killers were still a going concern and young girls falling prey to mysterious strangers was the ultimate fear.
Flash-forward to 2021, when slashers are, seemingly, making a comeback; Michael Myers is back (again and again), Candyman is terrorizing a new generation, and so is Scream’s now-iconic GhostFace, who is returning to silver screens in 2022. Some of the revamps haven’t hewn that close to the OG model, which makes sense, as we’re more concerned with spree killers and racially motivated murder these days than Ted Bundy and his ilk. I Know What You Did Last Summer, though, bafflingly, just doubles down.
Gone are the characters from Duncan’s novel; instead we meet Lennon and Allison (both played by Madison Iseman), blonde, pretty twins who are presented, basically, as “good” and “bad.” Lennon, the bad twin, has sex with everyone and does lots of drugs. Allison, the good twin, does not drink and does not have sex. They attend a party in similar outfits (for reasons not explained), at which Lennon has sex with Allison’s crush, Dylan, who we know is supposed to be soulful because he wears loose jeans and likes Joni Mitchell. When Allison finds out, she’s angry and confused — as is the audience. During the argument that unfolds, we learn the girls’ mother killed herself. After Lennon claims that their mother never loved them, Allison throws her necklace — previously belonging to Mom — at her twin, and suddenly (presto chango!), bad twin becomes good to the untrained eye.
This is all revealed in flashbacks, but it’s pretty obvious at the beginning of the episode where all this is going — which is straight to an SUV driven by Allison and filled with drunk, high teens who think she’s her sister. And when they mow down Lennon — who they think is Allison — on their way to get burritos, they decide to dump her in a conveniently nearby sea cave where, coincidence, the twins’ mother killed herself. Also, a cult apparently committed mass suicide in the same cave, which will surely come back to complicate things later. (There’s also a bunch of pseudo-witchy middle-aged naked folks in body paint who prance across the screen at one point, thus setting the scene for future hocus pocus.)
Without going (further) into the weeds, Allison becomes Lennon — with her father’s blessing, which is a whole other story — and, after coming home from college that summer, finds herself menaced by mysterious text messages from “Allison” that repeat the series title. (Side note to the creators: Pretty Little Liars is a show that exists.) Meanwhile, Lennon’s menagerie of stereotypes she calls friends continue to do drugs and have sex before they and a smattering random townsfolk start being systematically murdered in horrible ways — decapitation by dumbbell, drowning via a tube of blue slushie down the throat — while her father has kinky hookups with the chief of police. At one point, Lennon/Allison even sees footage of said intercourse and seems more mildly disgusted than traumatized, which, come on… suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
People will watch this show, as they watched revamps of Scream and Heathers and myriad other horror movies and series that heavily flirt with bad taste. Horror movies, at their core, are not supposed to be classy. And that’s great, since we all could use some sort of batshit release these days that’s not whatever atrocity the news, or Twitter, has on offer. But horror movies are also supposed to be at least a little consistent, thus maximizing the scares — or the laughs. With I Know What You Did Last Summer’s over-the-top kills — yes, let’s decapitate the kid, but what if we also filled his head with spiders?! — you’d expect the show to be at least a little bit funny. The only attempts at comic relief, however, are the friends’ unfunny Gen-Zisms (“low-key” this, Instagram that) — which clang awkwardly with the show’s otherwise dark, “gritty” tone — and a bumbling cop who seems like he wandered in from another series.
And that’s the question at the heart of this 2021 version of I Know What You Did Last Summer: Who, exactly, is this show for — and who is it trying to scare? The book was clearly for teens, as was, to a certain extent, the Nineties movie; both dealt with the toll one bad decision can take and were steeped in their respective eras’ fear of rampaging strangers. But at a time when school shootings are a regular occurrence — not to mention an increasingly sex-positive time — there’s no fun to be had in watching an adult’s sneering version of modern-day teenagers get murdered over and over. The true horror of this show might be Lois Duncan’s: In the end, we’re left with nothing but a gratuitous shock-fest for 30-year-olds to “squeal and giggle over.”