The new adaptation blazes its own trail but risks losing viewers in the bargain.
In 1973, Lois Duncan created the perfect premise for a thriller: a group of teens on a midnight joyride run over a pedestrian and make a pact to keep it a secret. They think they’re successful in hiding the crime. Then, a year later, one of them receives an ominous note stating simply, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” While the teens try to solve the mystery of who is harassing them, they soon realize that whoever knows their secret wants them dead.
When director Jim Gillespie and writer Kevin Williamson adapted it for Columbia Pictures in 1997, they recognized that while Duncan’s premise was timeless, her book was of its era. To reflect the moment, they incorporated themes of the young adult-thriller into the structure of a slasher film.
Twenty-four years later, Amazon is rebooting I Know What You Did Last Summer for a new generation and facing some of the same realities. Showrunner Sara Goodman has kept the premise, gores, and cares of the ’97 adaptation. She also adds a 21st-century injection of sex, drugs, and diversity. The result is a fresh reimagining that will thrill audiences looking for something different.
While I’m not always a fan of streaming services doing the weekly release model, I think Amazon’s approach to Summer—launching with four episodes on October 15th with remaining episodes releasing every subsequent Friday through November 12th—will work well for this story. The initial episodes introduce us to the characters, show the accident, and chart how harassment turns to murder in the aftermath a year later. The next four serve the main draw—keeping viewers in the dark as the mystery thickens—well.
Goodman’s treatment expands Summer’s focus, adding some much needed depth to the story. In the movie, the rash of killings seems to go unnoticed by the public at large. Here, though, Goodman elevates the show’s setting, Wai Huna, Hawaii, to show how the community deals with the death of innocent (and not so innocent) citizens.
This also provides the most exciting change, the implication that the accident may be part of some larger town conspiracy. In a way, Wai Huna is a character in its own right. Surveillance cameras act like the town’s eyes, giving the impression there is no place to hide.
Despite the widened focus, the series still centers on the teens, specifically Lennon (Madison Iseman). Far from the typical “final girl,” Lennon is a complicated heroine, consumed by more than just guilt over the accident. Most prominently, her mother’s suicide has left her relationship with her father (Bill Heck) and twin sister Alison (also Iseman) badly strained. Iseman portrays Lennon as a sympathetic monster who lashes out to hurt others while struggling with her traumatic pain.
The complexities of these relationships—between the friends and between them and the town—give the show its heart.
At first glance, the rest of the cast is a bit more two-dimensional. We have Margot (Brianne Tju), a self-obsessed influencer; Riley (Ashley Moore), a rough-around-the-edges drug dealer from a poor family; Dylan (Ezekial Goodman), the guilt-ridden softboy; and Johnny (Sebastian Amoruso), the nice gay guy. They don’t exactly read as ground-breaking. Still, in practice, they hit the screen as fully realized characters. A good part of this is due to the cast’s performances, but it also comes from the way Summer explores the intricacies of adolescent friendships.
The complexities of these relationships—between the friends and between them and the town—give the show its heart. The idea that the killer is more of an intangible force, a phantasm of guilt hanging over the teenagers, is fascinating. Even random coincidences feel connected. The killings marking not just individual deaths, but acting as manifestations of the trauma inflicted on Wai Huna for past wrongdoings.
Goodman keeps the killer unseen, which deepens the mystery and will keep you tuned in. However, it does mean that I Know What You Did Last Summer has given up the critical aspect of its previous incarnation: the villain. Gone is the iconic fisherman with a hook who haunted the nightmares of ’90s kids everywhere. I confess I miss seeing the creep in the slicker gutting his victims despite often inventive and gory death scenes.
I appreciate that Goodman isn’t just cashing in on the nostalgia train, but I do find it odd that they’ve included next to nothing that fans may recognize. The removal of the fisherman villain is certainly going to upset fans of the original franchise. That means plenty of pissed Gen Xers and millennials, no matter the quality of the show. I can only hope that Lennon will at least scream “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR” at least once in the remaining four episodes.
But while I’d like a few nods to its predecessors, I understand that the limited series has different aims. With its teenage drama and small-town intrigue, this I Know What You Did Last Summer often feels like Riverdale with decapitations and full-frontal nudity. It’s a valid, if frequently silly and self-indulgent, choice.
This is, of course, the dilemma of rebooting an IP. Make it similar and you’re called lazy, make it different and you’ll upset the fans you’re trying to court. Ultimately, this version fully embraces its own direction and is so much better for it. Unfortunately, I fear the series won’t escape the ’97 adaptation’s shadow, leading older fans to reject it. At the same time, the series slow-burn opening two episodes may send away newcomers who grow too bored waiting for the killing to start.
Then again, this franchise being haunted by its past is rather fitting, don’t you think?
I Know What You Did Last Summer will stand accused beginning on October 15th on Amazon Prime.