I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan – an examination


Lois Duncan was a household name if your house was home to kids with library memberships in the 70s and 80s. Her books for young people were Young Adult before the genre became mainstreamed. Looked down on, these books were known back then as Juvenile Fiction. Not that Lois Duncan ever wrote fiction that critics disdained. She was a rarity in that her work was mostly excellent, with a few rare misfires. Overall, she became one of the doyens of American teen literature alongside Robert Cormier, Joan Lowery Nixon, Paul Zindel, S.E. Hinton, and Walter Dean Myers. They were authors who found fame writing for young adults, but whose books gave you the sense that they were trying to put out something better than the expected cheap cash-ins aimed at kids. They were talented storytellers who understood the mechanics of a good yarn. They wrote tight plots with rigid structure, each of these authors having their own style. They all had something lacked in character-building, they made up for in throat-grabbing storytelling. If Robert Cormier wrote bleak stories about corruption/hypocrisy, Paul Zindel tackled real world issues with sensitivity, Judy Blume the trials of teens, and S.E. Hinton empathised with the underdog, then Lois Duncan’s specialty was good old-fashioned suspense fiction. She wrote stories about teen kidnapping, psychic powers encroaching on reality, witchcraft, feminism, murder, and revenge. I Know What You Did Last Summer, her most famous work, is ostensibly a revenge tale about teens under siege from a mysterious stalker. Published in 1973, the story also has Vietnam vein running through it. This period of young adult fiction focused on real life events to power their plots and in America the war was particular noteworthy fodder for fiction.

The book

The main characters are Julie James, Helen Rivers, Ray Bronson, and Barry Cox. You could leap into a puddle of their complexity and emerge totally dry. They are four archetypes. Julie is the quiet, good girl who studies hard and hopes to get into university. Ray Bronson is kind but poor. Helen Rivers is a deceptively tough beauty queen with a jealous sister. Barry Cox is the jock. From the outset, you know these characters because they’re familiar stereotypes, the same sort of teenagers who live, breath, and die in YA fiction. Sometimes they drink too, but when they do, bad things happen, especially if someone’s behind the wheel of a car. You know the story, don’t you? Four teenagers run someone over, make a pack never to tell what happened, and one year later someone comes after them, leaving nasty notes about what they did last summer. Except that’s only one story and I Know What You Did Last Summer has been retold in different formats, each time changing until it’s barely recognisable.

The Movie

For a start, the book by Lois Duncan could never be made into a movie, simply because the twist relies on the reader not knowing that one character in the book has in fact inserted himself into the lives of two girls, none of whom are any the wiser. But when it was made into a movie, it had to be drastically changed. It was all Scream’s fault. Kevin Williamson scored a huge postmodern horror hit and was suddenly hot property in Hollywood. For that period, he could do whatever he wanted. And what did he want? To bring the Lois Duncan classic to the big screen. Written and made in the period between Scream and Dawson’s Creek, I Know What You Did Last Summer took many liberties with the source material. In the book, the four teens hit a child out on his bicycle. In the movie, they hit a man on his way back from murdering someone up on a cliff. How very unlucky for everyone. Like the book, the four stereotypes decide to keep the hit and run a secret. Recognising that the best roles for performers their age were only available in slasher movies, there was no shortage of talent to look mournful and moody in posters on walls of American (and worldwide) cinemas. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Philippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr all equip themselves well enough with what they’re given. Where Scream was smart and savvy, I Know What You Did Last Summer was traditional, relying on audiences wanting to shout GET AWAY FROM THE BOAT! HE’S BEHIND YOU! Of course the movie made cult status. How could it not with Buffy The Vampire Slayer in one of the main roles, the writer of Scream being mentioned on the poster, and the marketing blitz and products sold from it?

The Soundtrack

A successful movie aimed at teenagers will come with several tie-ins, one of the most important being the soundtrack. The ’90s soundtracks are time capsules of American alternative rock, with most of the bands not quite crossing over into the mainstream, and record labels pitched their great next hopes into these movies (and TV shows) with the lure of potential commercial success. Sometimes it worked, more often than not these soundtracks were the only place a band tasted success. How many of us first discovered Letters To Cleo when we watched 10 Things I Hate About You? How often did you rewind the footage at The Bronze just to hear Miho Hatori sing Sugar Water? Did you like Kiss Me by Sixpence None The Richer? Someone did, because that song appeared on the soundtrack tie-ins for She’s All That and Dawson’s Creek. Through these movies, TV shows, and bands, we found our footing in culture that we wanted to belong in. In the early days of the net when Amazon was just starting to find a foothold in the music world, international delivery was expensive and absolutely necessary at times. Even as a tool to discover a tracklisting if the fan sites didn’t have the information you needed?

I Know What You Did Last Summer was big enough that the record shops stocked the CD in their Soundtracks section. The songs are a mixture of good and very bad. There’s little space in between the two extremes. Hush, a cover of the Deep Purple song, is taken by Kula Shaker and given a cool redo. I like it. I like Kula Shaker. That opinion is controversial. L7, Korn, Goatboy (whose Great Life made me think Beck was on the CD before I discovered it wasn’t), and Adam Cohen all contribute good songs with hooks sharper than any wielded by The Fisherman. The rest vary but rank in the lower end of the quality scale. However, they repersent a strange time in alternative music when Nu Metal was arriving and no-one quite knew where to go commercially. If Kula Shaker, the first band on the album, embody Britpop, then it’s fitting the closing track on the CD belogns to Korn, the epitome of Nu Metal.

The Sequel

Every good horror movie deserves a sequel and usually ends up with ten. I Know What You Did Last Summer was a huge box office smash and a sequel had to have been greenlit very quickly. In 1998, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer arrived and was quickly forgotten, because it’s forgetttable. Not even Brandy could make it worthwhile. It’s dull, unexciting, and in the savvy postmodern ’90s, it plays too traditional and doesn’t take risks. Even Urban Legend, a spiritual successor to I Know What You Did Last Summer, was more entertaining and had the better soundtrack.

The author’s reaction

Though she’d made her career writing suspense stories that put teen girls in peril, Lois Duncan found herself unable to continue writing the books that made her famous. On July 16th 1989, her daugher Kaitlin was murdered in an apparent random attack when a car pulled up alongside her car and a gun was fired twice into her head. Shattered with grief, Lois found herself unable to plough the field that made her famous and successful. She wrote other books for children and a book about her daughter’s death, coping with it the way all writers cope with the world – by writing her way into the story. Mistrustful of the police, Lois started using psychics and private detectives to help her own investigation. Also, her knowledge of crime from a career in writing helped put some pieces together. Sadly, the murder went unsolved and Lois Duncan passed in 2016 without knowing the identity of her daughter’s killer. No-one did. Until he confessed this year. In 2021, decades after Kaitlin’s death, a suspect was arrested in connection with another crime and gave names of other victims, Kaitlin’s among them. At the time of writing, the investigation is ongoing.

Lois Duncan, who wrote a teenage suspense novel in the ’70s, apparently watched I Know What You Did Last Summer and hated what was done with her book. Slashers are usually criticised for their violence towards women, even though the survivors are usually female. For Lois Duncan, the mother of a girl who died in a violent attack, the changes were too much and too unpleasant. To add insult to injury, another YA suspence novel, her first since she stopped writing them, was adapted into a TV movie with Sarah Chalke. Gallow’s Hill was almost as good as classic Lois Duncan. A girl thrust into a town full of privilege and a history of witchcraft became the source material for a story about a tame slasher called I’ve Been Waiting For You. The killer dispatches their victims with a spiked glove, because it couldn’t be a hook for copyright reasons.

The TV Series

Premiering on Amazon Prime in October 2021, a new TV series of I Know What You Did Last Summer was heavily advertised online. Barely indebted to a movie which itself was barely indebted to a book of the same name, the TV version is virtually something else completely. The trimmings are there. The title. A hit and run. A secret kept. Murders. But the suspense as been dropped in favour of a CW aesthetic that doesn’t really suit the source material, which itself was tense and creepy. The series isn’t finished yet, but my interest in it started and finished with episode one.

The Legacy

Sometimes it takes death people to appreciate the life and legacy of someone who’d gone quiet for some time. Lois Duncan’s legacy is that of a groundbreaker who helped legitimise the Young Adult genre, taking it from something looked down on into slightly more worthwhile areas. She won awards. She made fans. Her postscript is secured, because as long as young people want to read books, there’s a chance they’ll find one with her name on it. Strangely, her greatest contribution to popular culture comes in the form of a movie that’s vaguely like one of her books, a movie she hated, albeit one inextricably linked to her name forever.

One response to “I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan – an examination”

  1. This is a fascinating and sad post – had no idea Lois Duncan suffered this personal loss!
    I loved discovering new music through films and TV shows in the 90s. I was obsessed with trying to find out what bands were playing in the Bronze and was very disappointed when I bought a Buffy soundtrack which clearly lacked the more superior appearances!

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