Young Heroes in Horror Movies
and the Historical Significance of "I Know What You Did Last Summer"
- Had the script been like the book, I don't think I would have wanted to play [this role].
- —Sarah Michelle Gellar (contrasting her film I Know What You Did Last Summer with the Lois Duncan novel)(1)
Middle-aged critics were caught off-guard when I Know What You Did Last Summer made a fortune at the box office. These critics had trashed the film, pointing out (rightly) that the killer looks more silly than scary and that none of the characters act realistically.
Some of the film's plausibility-fumbles, in fact, were hilarious. In one scene, Jennifer Love Hewitt hears a strange noise in her car. She pulls over in a quiet neighborhood and opens her truck to discover a dead body and (don't ask me why) several live crabs. She then runs to get her friends. When they return to the car, all evidence is gone and Hewitt looks crazy — as if the killer could somehow know exactly when Hewitt would discover the body, know where she would pull over, and then remove all evidence without any of the neighbors noticing a man dressed in raingear (on a sunny day) pulling a dead body and several crabs out of a car.
This is also one of those horror movies where no one would ever die if they had any common sense. In one scene, Sarah Michelle Gellar, being chased by the killer, ducks into a store. She urges the sole employee to lock the back door while Gellar calls 911. Gellar is dialing when she hears a scream. So what does she do? She stops dialing and pops her head out to investigate.
But such criticisms miss the point. Despite its shortcomings, I Know What You Did Last Summer did well at the box office, and it deserved to. There have been hundreds of dumb horror movies where teenagers stupidly put themselves in danger and killers get more lucky breaks than James Bond at a craps table. What made this film stand out so strongly were its young heroes.
Virtue and Heroics
Let's start with the ending. Jennifer Love Hewitt is trapped on a fishing boat alone with the killer. Freddie Prinze, Jr. stands on the dock watching the boat depart. What does he do? Our unarmed hero grabs a small motor boat and chases after them.
Had this been a movie about older characters, the scene would have been a cliché. We've seen thousands of movies where a hero risks his life to save the girl from the villain. But it was almost unprecedented to depict a teenager in such heroic fashion.
The entire teen horror genre seems like a collection of missed opportunities for such heroics. Since the mid-70's, most of the films Hollywood has offered with teenaged characters have been horror films. The remaining teenager films have been mostly comedies — films that offer little opportunity for life-risking heroics. The horror films, with their evil villains and their perpetual danger, have been the one place where we might have hoped to see teenaged protagonists display such heroism. We've certainly seen adults in horror movies act heroically: Michael Biehn in The Terminator risking his life to save Linda Hamilton from the unstoppable killing machine; Tom Skerritt in Alien volunteering to venture alone into the air shaft and confront the monster; Roy Scheider in Jaws 2 sitting in a rowboat deliberately attracting the shark so his sons can swim to safety. But time after time, Hollywood has refused to offer teenagers what it offers adults.
Most teen horror movies depict teenagers as shallow and self-centered people whose only goals are to get laid, get stoned, and get out alive. In such a movie, when a teenager sees a friend or lover in danger, he does nothing but watch until his friend/lover is dead and the killer finally turns on him; then he flees. In Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (not to be confused with Part IX the Final Friday, or Parts X, XI, or XII), the heroine actually holds a machete in her hands as she watches (less than 10 feet away from her!) her love interest in a death struggle with the momentarily unarmed killer. She does nothing but fret until her boyfriend is dead, then run.
Even Scream (written by I Know What You Did Last Summer screenwriter Kevin Williamson) has protagonist Neve Campbell do nothing but wince as she watches the killer stab her boyfriend over and over. A few minutes later, we see Campbell, armed with a gun, confronted with two people each claiming the other is the killer. She doesn't know which one to trust. Does she use the gun to hold them both captive until police arrive to sort out the facts? No. Incredibly, she locks them both outside, creating a situation in which only the guilty one can survive. Some heroine!
There have been exceptions to this rule. Even before I Know What You Did Last Summer, there were films where teenaged heroes risked their lives to save others. But these films were few in number, and their heroics did not match the heroics of Freddie Prinze, Jr.
1986's The Hitcher was another film hated by middle-aged critics. Written by Eric Red (Near Dark), The Hitcher tells the story of a teenager (C. Thomas Howell) driving through a Texas wasteland on his way to college. Several times he encounters a serial killer (Rutger Hauer) hitchhiking through the same terrain. In one scene, Howell discovers a family has allowed the killer a ride in their station wagon. Howell risks his life with some dangerous driving as he tries to warn the family. He fails, however, and the family is killed. In a later scene, Howell's love interest (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suddenly turns up missing from their motel room. Without hesitation, Howell grabs a makeshift weapon and charges out to confront the killer. Again he fails. Throughout the film, this young hero appears inferior to the older villain. Even in the end, he is able to kill Rutger Hauer only because Hauer wants to die.
In fairness to The Hitcher, Howell does not fail at everything. He even overcomes other old opponents — namely the police, who have mistaken Howell for the killer. In one empowering scene, Howell hijacks a police car and successfully takes two cops hostage. Later, he outmaneuvers police in a car chase, and then manages to hijack yet another police car. It's easy to understand why young movie stars like Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez struggled to get the lead role in this film.
One other horror film in which young heroes risk their lives to save someone is A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. The subtitle itself refers to this heroism. Freddy Kruger takes one teenager prisoner. In the film's climax, the remaining teenagers venture into the dream world to fight Freddy and save their friend. Like C. Thomas Howell in The Hitcher, however, they cannot defeat the killer. In the end, they themselves must be rescued by an older person.
The heroism in Dream Warriors is also less virtuous than it may sound. These teenagers know they will have to confront Freddy sooner or later anyway; he has targeted all of them for death. They simply choose to move up the time frame.
At the climax of I Know What You Did Last Summer, however, Freddie Prinze, Jr. is a man with options. He finally knows the killer's identity. He could forget Hewitt and run to the police, hoping they find this killer before the killer finds him. Prinze could go into hiding and hope that if the killer ever finds him again, it will be when Prinze is better equipped to defend himself. Instead, Freddie Prinze, Jr. selflessly risks his life to save his ex-girlfriend — a beautiful display of the Hollywood heroism adults have always enjoyed. Finally, Hollywood lets teenagers enjoy it, too.
After the success of I Know What You Did Last Summer, other horror films allowed teenagers to enjoy similar heroics. Halloween H20 (produced by Last Summer screenwriter Williamson) offers a scene in which Josh Hartnett and his girlfriend (Michelle Williams) run from the killer. At one point, they stop to catch their breath. The killer jumps out from behind the trees and attacks Williams with a knife. Unlike earlier horror movie teenagers, Hartnett does not simply watch. He boldly attacks the armed killer, punching him until the killer lets go of Williams and turns his attention to Hartnett. Then Williams returns the favor by bashing the killer's head with a rock, and the young lovers flee once again.
Kevin Williamson had no involvement with the sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, but it, too, offers a virtuous hero. This time, a badly wounded Freddie Prinze, Jr. crawls out of his hospital bed prematurely and spends most of the movie struggling to reach the island where he knows his friends are in danger. Unfortunately, Prinze (a minor character in this sequel) is the only youth here who is heroic. In one of the more embarrassing scenes, Hewitt and three others stand in a room arguing when the killer suddenly appears and attacks one. Hewitt and the two remaining youths are holding kitchen knives and they have the killer outnumbered, yet they simply stand there and scream as they watch their friend get butchered. Then they run.
The discussion of virtue cannot end without discussing another scene in the original I Know What You Did Last Summer. Earlier in the film, Freddy Prinze, Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt discuss the event that motivated the killer to target them (i.e. what they did last Summer): they accidentally ran over someone and then agreed to cover up the incident by hiding the body. It is a cliché to depict youth avoiding responsibility for their actions; but surprisingly, this scene where they discuss it reverses the cliché.
Hewitt accepts responsibility
Prinze offers, "I know you hold me responsible for what happened."
Hewitt responds, "No. I'm responsible for my own actions." Offered the chance to put all the blame on her ex-boyfriend, she refuses, and retains her share of the blame. She displays here a degree of nobility often depicted in adults but almost never depicted in youth. Pop-culture depicts youth as eager to point blame at others. In Jaws, for example, two children play a prank with a cardboard shark fin. As soon as they're caught, one boy points at the other and recites his only line in the film, "He made me do it."
In Lois Duncan's novel I Know What You Did Last Summer, this conversation between the protagonist and her ex-boyfriend is quite different. She pins all the blame on Barry (played in the film by Ryan Phillippe) and expresses hostility toward Barry's girlfriend for refusing to join her in blaming Barry. This protagonist willingly agreed to keep the secret (her agreement was not made under duress, as it was in the film) and she spends the entire novel keeping that agreement, but she refuses to see herself as responsible for these actions.
In the film, Hewitt is strong enough to make choices and take responsibility for them. She agrees under duress to keep silent, but she knows she can break that agreement later. She chooses not to, and she accepts responsibility for her choice. Strong and noble: two qualities we like in a heroine.
Let's go back to that climax. Once Prinze gets on board the boat, he and Hewitt bungle around like idiots as the filmmakers try to stretch the climax. Ultimately, though, the teenagers triumph over the killer, or at least they triumph as well as one can in a horror movie where the filmmakers want room for a sequel.
In the final seconds, Hewitt is attacked again by the killer. In any other genre, that flourish might signal a defeat for our young heroine. But horror fans have learned to ignore the final scare in a horror movie. It is almost always some dumb attack that makes no sense and may as well be a dream sequence. In the sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, in fact, they tell us that last assault was only a dream.
Our young heroes prove they are up to the task, able to fend for themselves even against an older opponent. This is all too rare in fiction.
In any movie with an older protagonist, it is expected the film's ending will hinge on what that protagonist does or fails to do. It is his story, after all. But when the main character is young, Hollywood often ignores the rules of good story-telling to follow instead the rules of ageism. Any time a young hero challenges an older villain, it is an unwritten rule the film must affirm the superiority of the old. Usually, as with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, the young heroes end up cornered by the old villain and must be rescued by some deus ex machina, usually another old dude coming to the rescue.
Horror novels follow this cliché as well, even ones marketed to youth. R.L. Stine's Young Adult thriller Wrong Number, for example, climaxes with two able-bodied teenagers cornered by one unarmed adult. For several pages, they struggle unsuccessfully to get past him. Then, when all looks lost, police show up out of the blue to rescue them.
Even beyond the horror genre, examples of this cliché abound. Home Alone ends with Macaulay Culkin trapped by the bungling burglars until, out of the blue, an elderly man appears and whacks the bad guys with a shovel. Star Wars ends with young Luke Skywalker about to get clipped by old Darth Vader when, out of the blue, old Han Solo flies in to rescue him.
Hollywood has even re-written history to fit this cliché. The westerns Chisum and Young Guns were both based on the Lincoln County War, in which teenager Billy the Kid joined several other gunfighters in challenging government corruption. Both films use as their climax the Five-Day Battle, which ended with Billy the Kid and a dozen of his companions trapped in a burning house surrounded by roughly 40 lawmen plus another 40 soldiers. In real life, the Kid used some clever thinking to escape and save three of his friends in the process (2). Both films, however, re-write history to fit the disempowering cliché. In Chisum, the Kid sits helplessly until old John Wayne comes riding to his rescue. In Young Guns, the Kid at least tries to save himself. He and his friends charge out of the burning house, trying in vain to shoot their way free. But they are hopelessly trapped until, miraculously, Lou Diamond Philips appears with some horses, on which they quickly escape. Philips' character was young, at least, but he was still used as a deus ex machina to rescue a helpless young protagonist. Philips himself was not the protagonist. We do not experience this episode from his viewpoint; we never see his struggle to escape from the house, gather the horses, and then fight his way back into the danger zone. He just disappears from the scene and then reappears when all looks lost.
Since the success of I Know What You Did Last Summer, some films have allowed young protagonists to triumph over older villains. The best example is the horror film Disturbing Behavior, which ends with its young hero (James Marsden) killing the older villain while tossing off the coolest and funniest line any Hollywood hero has ever uttered while dispatching a villain. (I won't reveal the line here, only because it wouldn't work out of context.)
Even films aimed at an older audience can now treat youth more respectfully. Domestic Disturbance stars John Travolta as the father of an imperiled 12-year-old. If the film had been made a few years earlier, the boy would have been kept weak in order to remain cute (and therefore sympathetic) in the eyes of middle-aged John-Travolta-fans. Today, Hollywood sees audiences can handle something better — not every film need pander to insecure adults. This film lets the 12-year-old stand up to his murderous stepfather (Vince Vaughn). In the climax, the boy is trapped. John Travolta charges in to tackle Vaughn, and when Travolta finds himself overmatched, the kid tackles Vaughn and manages to (inadvertently) kill this villain.
To be fair, there were a few horror films even before I Know What You Did Last Summer in which teenaged protagonists manage to slay the villain (however temporarily) without the help of a deus ex machina. Some of the Friday the 13th installments end with the young virgin somehow out-fighting the killer. But this triumph lasts for only a second. The rest of the film is 80 minutes of helpless teenagers being tortured and killed. A few seconds of empowerment cannot balance all that disempowerment.
Even before its climax, I Know What You Did Last Summer is empowering. Its young heroes are surprisingly proactive. As soon as they learn they are being stalked by a killer, they investigate. They question suspects. They follow leads.
At one point, they even lay a trap for the killer. Knowing the killer will attend a parade to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe attends as well, hunting for anyone in a slicker. He spots someone and chases, ultimately catching the guy. It turns out to be the wrong guy. But the important thing is: these heroes take action.
In most horror movies, the teenaged protagonists just sit on their butts waiting to be killed. They are not really protagonists so much as they are props for the killer, who is the real main character (in fact, he is often the only character of consequence).
Even in Lois Duncan's original novel, the teenagers are passive. They learn in the first chapter they are being stalked, yet they spend most of the book doing nothing more than debating whether they should take any action at all. And most of the time, the only action they even consider is going to the police and confessing their hit-and-run. This idea, which they reject right up until the last page, would be a smart move in real life; yet for audiences, seeing this would still not be as empowering as seeing young heroes solve the problem themselves as they do in the film.
At one point in the novel, the teenagers do seem to get off their butts, at least a little. The protagonist and her ex-boyfriend visit the sister of the person they ran over. They don't reveal who they are; they go to her house on the pretext of having car trouble. They manage to learn valuable information that helps them piece together what is happening. This information, however, is all volunteered by the gabby sister. The teenagers do nothing to elicit information, they simply luck-out.
In the film version of this scene, Hewitt visits the sister, not with Prinze, but with Gellar. While Gellar's character in the book is a self-absorbed ditz, she shows brains here as she cleverly uses her social skills to get useful information without arousing the sister's suspicion.
In the novel, these teenagers remain passive to the end. At the book's climax, the main character finds herself, not trapped on a boat with an armed killer, but merely standing on a sidewalk with an unarmed killer (or maybe I should say "would-be" killer since the book's villain is a teenager who — of course — fails at every murder attempt). He strangles her. She then spends several paragraphs thinking about how much she doesn't want to die, but she makes no attempt to resist or escape. Finally, after a full page of wishing she could survive, she loses consciousness. In the next passage, she regains consciousness to find herself in fine shape. Why is she still alive? You guessed it: at the last second, a rescuer appeared out of nowhere to "clobber" the bad guy with a flashlight.
At no point does the book's main character lift a finger to solve her predicament or help her friends. She is hardly a heroine audiences can cheer. In this respect, the book was ironically similar to most teen horror movies other than the one based on it.
There have been only a few horror films where teenagers take any initiative against their stalkers. The original Nightmare On Elm Street features a heroine who becomes proactive, but only in the third act. After being menaced for most of the film, she finally gets off her butt and works out a way to fight Freddy, then charges into the dream world to hunt Freddy and put her plan into action.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors ends with a similar hunt, though the teenagers go in with no real plan. Even the decision to go in is a decision made on the fly. These teenagers are more reactive than proactive.
One other proactive teenager can be found in Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill. Here, Keith Gordon plays a teenager whose mother is killed. Gordon somehow deduces the killer is a patient of psychiatrist Michael Caine, and Gordon sets up a hidden camera outside Caine's office to get images of the patients. He then has murder-witness Nancy Allen identify the killer from these photos, and Gordon and Allen hunt for the killer.
Gordon, unfortunately, is only a minor character. This is a horror film aimed at older audiences, so the one teenaged character is given minimal screen time. Ironically, he makes a better hero than most young characters in horror films aimed at youth.
Dressed to Kill may be De Palma's apology for his anti-youth Carrie, a film made for audiences whose idea of entertainment is to spend 90 minutes watching teenagers get slapped around, tortured, humiliated, degraded, and finally killed. (Carrie, needless to say, was widely loved by middle-aged critics.) Dressed to Kill has its own ugly side: it attacks women with eroticized violence, and it attacks queers and blacks with negative stereotyping. But the film is surprisingly youth-friendly.
Not only is Gordon proactive, but amazingly, he gets to be a deus ex machina. Nancy Allen, the film's older heroine, is attacked by the killer, and Keith Gordon appears out of nowhere to mace the killer and rescue Allen. What a twist! The teenager saves the helpless old chick.
But Dressed to Kill stood virtually alone in a genre filled to the brim with weak teenagers fretting and waiting to be saved.
Thrillers in which the main character is young and also heroic have been hard to find. When one comes along, it can excite hungry young audiences, no matter what other weaknesses the film may have. I Know What You Did Last Summer deserved its box office triumph and deserves a prominent spot in horror movie history.