[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Amazon's I Know What You Did Last Summer.]
I Know What You Did Last Summer is the best type of intellectual property to get the reboot treatment. It's remembered fondly, but it's not so classic and beloved that any remake will inevitably pale in comparison to the original. No one's youth is going to be murdered by a new version of the story, aside from the teenagers who get brutally hacked up in it. A reboot even has the potential to be better than Lois Duncan's 1973 young adult mystery novel and screenwriter Kevin Williamson's 1997 slasher movie, neither of which are great works of art. I Know What You Did Last Summer is mostly just a hooky premise (pun intended) for an enterprising writer to use as a springboard. The ideal IKWYDLS TV adaptation would have a more ambitious story with deeper characters while reviving the fun, crowd-pleasing tone of the movie.
Amazon's new teen horror drama series reboot certainly seizes the opportunity it's been given to take the franchise in a different direction, but it doesn't really make the franchise better. And it doesn't conjure up nostalgic memories of the late '90s and early '00s. It just turns I Know What You Did Last Summer into yet another sour Gen Z drama without much personality of its own.
The basic premise, as mentioned, remains intact, because it's so simple as to be perfect: A group of teenagers who hit a person with their car, disposed of the body, and vowed to keep what they did a secret are being hunted one year later by a mysterious killer who... knows what they did last summer. The interesting new idea that series creator Sara Goodman adds to the premise can't be discussed without spoiling the show's first twist, so spoiler warning from here on out.
I Know What You Did Last Summer 2021 introduces a diverse group of graduating high school seniors in small-town Hawai'i. There are twin sisters Lennon and Allison (both Madison Iseman), the former of whom is popular, outgoing, and extremely messed up (think Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer), and the latter of whom is unambitious and withdrawn, and has been ever since their mother killed herself in some kind of cult mass suicide, the details of which the show keeps mysterious through the first four episodes sent for review. There's Margot (Brianne Tju), a rich, selfish social media influencer. There's Dylan (Ezekiel Goodman), a mopey boy with OCD who's in love with Allison but was seduced by Lennon in an effort to hurt her sister. There's Riley (Ashley Moore), a poor girl who deals ketamine to support herself. And finally there's Johnny (Sebastian Amoruso), a floppy-haired bisexual hunk who dreams of going to Juilliard. They've all known each other since they were little, which means they think they know everything about each other, but they all have secrets.
One night, after a drug-fueled graduation party, Margot, Dylan, Riley, and Johnny get into Lennon's Jeep. Allison is sitting in the driver's seat, hiding out after a fight with her sister prompted by Lennon sleeping with Dylan. They think she's Lennon, and Allison doesn't bother to correct them. Allison accidentally hits Lennon in the road, and the friends — who are not Allison's friends — hide what they think is Allison's body in the very same cave where her mother died and agree to never tell anyone else what happened.
Allison goes home and tells her father Bruce (Bill Heck) what happened, and they come up with a plan: Allison will become Lennon. They'll tell everyone Allison ran away, and Allison will take over her sister's life.
A year later, "Lennon" comes home from college and starts getting threatening messages from someone who knows what she and her friends did, and who begins killing them and other people in town. So her life is very complicated. She has to try to figure out who's after her while also trying to keep her true identity secret.
The secret identity twist is a clever addition that gives more narrative juice to the story to help support it over the course of a whole season instead of just 90 minutes. The show's most compelling scenes are the ones where "Lennon's" secret is threatened, or where she wishes she could be Allison and tell the truth about how she feels. There's some complexity to the character, who has to pretend to be someone she had a love-hate relationship with when she was alive.
But that change is pretty much the only thing that works about the reboot. The rest of it is an acrid mess of edgy teen drama tropes that plays like a horror version of 13 Reasons Why. You could go down a checklist of things that are annoying in this type of show. Convoluted storytelling that overuses the device of nonlinearity? Check. Scenes that are meant to build intrigue but in practice give so little information that they're just confusing? Check. Extreme violence and images of self-harm that will make you clutch your pearls a little bit? Check. Overly of-the-moment dialogue that will make this show age like a blue slushie left outside on a Hawaiian summer day? Check and double check. The characters talk in the therapized teenspeak of social media, saying things like, "I can't even right now. This goes way beyond attention-seeking behavior." The writers tried so hard to make the teen dialogue sound "authentic" that they failed to make it distinctive.
These flaws are all the more striking when compared to the 1997 I Know What You Did Last Summer, which is charming precisely because it's so straightforward. It's a simple story told in linear fashion with absolutely no self-aware winks to the audience. Kevin Williamson helped create the Frankenstein's monster of cliché-conscious meta-horror with his (still brilliant) script for Scream, but IKWYDLS was his anti-Scream. It's a movie that could have been made in 1981 that doesn't call attention to the fact that it could have been made in 1981.
The new I Know What You Did Last Summer, on the other hand, can't stop drawing attention to the fact that it could have only been made right now. There's a gruesome shot in Episode 2 that was lifted from Ari Aster's 2018 hit Hereditary. That's as far back as I Know What You Did Last Summer is looking for inspiration. "Ew, old movies are so boring," a character says in the show's only acknowledgement of its source material.
That line, in a nutshell, sums up the problems with I Know What You Did Last Summer's tone. It replaces the unpretentiousness of the movie with the same referential, Whedonesque faux-humor that's so dispiritingly grating in every other show or movie that does it. And they all do it.
I Know What You Did Last Summer does take the franchise in a new direction narratively, which is good. But it would have been better if it had gone in that new direction while keeping the thing that was appealing about the original version. What we get instead doesn't work as either a contemporary show or a nostalgia exercise. It's just not fun enough.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
The first four episodes of I Know What You Did Last Summer premiere Friday, Oct. 15 on Amazon Prime Video.