Happy Birthday, Sarah Michelle Gellar: A Brief Appreciation of ‘IKWYDLS” Croaker Queen

In the realm of post-“Scream” teen slasher flicks, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” isn't terrible. Which isn't the same as saying it's good! Because, objectively, “IKWYDLS” is not a “good” movie. In fact, it's a pretty dumb one. But I'll be damned if I haven't watched it at least seven or eight times, and that's mostly thanks to Sarah Michelle Gellar's oddly compelling performance as Southport, North Carolina's doomed resident “Croaker Queen” Helen Shivers.

Here's how old I am: I saw “IKWYDLS” in theaters. The year was 1997, and I was…12? 14? Let's go with 14 (for now). We were in the midst of a horror “revolution,” which is to say: one good movie came out (“Scream”), that movie became a giant sleeper hit, and Hollywood just kept making lesser versions of that movie over and over again until it stopped working for them. (I peg the end of this cycle to the holiday-themed 2001 slasher “Valentine” starring Marley Shelton, Denise Richards and a pre-“Grey's” Katherine Heigl.)

Seventeen-and-a-half years on from “IKWYDLS's” release, my relationship with the slasher genre is decidedly love-hate. “Halloween” was the movie that sparked my love of the horror genre, and I continue to love it even as I understand that, like all traditional slashers, it packages brutal murders as entertainment and casts young, attractive women as one-dimensional victims. (Author and blogger Anna March is just the latest to critique this trend, and she certainly won't be the last.)

Still, I can't help but hold a special place in my heart for Ms. Shivers. Forget Jennifer Love Whats-a-whoosit! I've almost always found the so-named “Final Girls” to be the least interesting characters in those films, and Jennifer Love Hewitt's conscientious “good girl” Julie James is no exception (see also: Neve Campbell in “Scream,” Adrienne King in “Friday the 13th,” et al).

Helen, by contrast, is a far more intriguing and complex creation — a self-involved beauty pageant winner who joins her hunky boyfriend Barry (Ryan Phillippe) in calling for the disposal of the hit-and-run victim whom the photogenic friends have inadvertently mowed down after a drunken night out. After he turns out to be not quite dead? Helen delivers the death blow that sends the unfortunate man to his watery grave.

The remaining two-thirds of the film become an engaging-enough exercise in guilt and paranoia, as the four teens reckon with the crime they've committed while finding themselves stalked by a shadowy figure dismissively dubbed by at least one contemporary critic as the “Gorton's Fisherman.” Touche! But Gellar manages to rise above her co-stars by nicely evoking the secret shame harbored by her guilt-ridden character, who in the wake of the accident tragically puts her very '90s dreams of soap-opera stardom on hold to work in her family's department store (and looks fabulous, if a tad wan, while doing it!).

By the time Helen meets her untimely demise — the culmination of a terrific prolonged chase sequence — Gellar has managed the neat trick of transforming the vapid small-town beauty into a genuinely sympathetic victim. All this AFTER we've witnessed her beating an innocent man to death with her damn shoe. This, like SMG's 38th birthday, deserves to be celebrated as a rare achievement in the slasher sub-genre. Consider this my belated and heartfelt tribute to the dear, departed Croaker Queen, who in the year of our lord 1997 gave undiscerning moviegoers across the nation just a little bit more than they deserved.

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