Croaker, Queen: How Sarah Michelle Gellar Slayed Expectations with I Know What You Did Last Summer
When we first meet Helen Shivers, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in teen horror flick I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), she is centre stage. As she steps up to take part in the question and answer portion of Southport, North Carolina’s annual Fourth of July beauty pageant, she beams, projecting beauty, grace and confidence. When she says, without irony, that she will “serve her country” by becoming a “serious actress” on the New York stage, you’re not only charmed, but intrigued. And when she takes home the Croaker Queen crown just moments later, you can’t help but be hopeful for her – and Gellar’s – future.
Much like Helen Shivers, I Know What You Did Last Summer was poised for greatness when it was released in the fall of 1997. Based on a script by Scream writer Kevin Williamson (which was itself based off a book by Lois Duncan) and starring a cast full of up-and-coming actors, including Gellar and her eventual husband Freddie Prinze Jr., it had all the makings of the next teen horror sensation. And it made a pretty big splash at the box office, holding the No. 1 slot for three weeks in a row after its release. But over time, it has become a sort of second-runner up to more ground-breaking films of the time (think Scream, Final Destination), a footnote in the late 90s, early 00s horror conversation.
The fact is, there has always been a fogginess to I Know What You Did Last Summer’s PG-13 plot, which follows friends Helen, Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Barry (Ryan Philippe) and Ray (Prinze Jr.) as they attempt to keep a damning secret while being framed and maimed by a mysterious hook-bearing villain (“The Fisherman”). (Remember the all-too-sudden seaside climax? Didn’t think so.) But every time Gellar’s Helen is on screen, this fog dissipates, making way for some moments of real emotional weight.
Spoilers below: Stop reading now if you don't want to know what they did 22 summers ago
Watching the first 10 minutes of I Know What You Did Last Summer, you might think (or at least hope) that Gellar’s blonde, bubbly Helen has a chance at becoming the film’s Final Girl. Sadly, Helen doesn’t make it in New York, nor does she make it to the film’s finale. In what might be one of the most gutting turns in modern horror history (seriously), Helen’s best friend, good girl Julie, ends up sailing off into the slasher movie sunset (see: silly, but fun sequel) while Helen is brutally murdered just steps away from safety.
Yes, chaste and quiet Julie fits the traditional Final Girl archetype to a baby tee, a sort of watered down version of virginal babysitter Laurie Strode (1978’s Halloween). But you have to remember, I Know What You Did Last Summer came out in the fall of 1997, almost a year after Scream presented an empowering alternative to the tired archetype (the sexually active, self-motivated Sidney Prescott). What’s more, in the spring of that same year, Gellar made her debut as a walking, talking, pun-hawking symbol of survival: Buffy Summers.
Like Gellar’s signature character on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Helen Shivers defies expectations at every turn. Often dismissed because of their traditional good looks and passion for fashion, Buffy and Helen are truly complicated women with deep desires and obvious talents. They are the type of characters you naturally root for; the ones you want to see get a second (or third or fourth) chance.
Helen may not be blessed with supernatural strength, but she’s clearly a fighter. She speaks up – nay, screams – when she sees someone in danger (See: Barry’s balcony demise). She is unafraid to confront her feelings, as evidenced by her tearful admission to Julie that she misses her and wishes they hadn’t grown apart (Julie, a sort of sociopath in overalls, says pretty much nothing in return). And while she could easily hide away after her signature long locks are chopped off by The Fisherman, Helen holds her head high and makes her scheduled appearance at the Croaker Festival. This includes the pageant portion, where she knows she will be forced to surrender her crown to a new Croaker Queen. (Surely it helps that she, and Gellar, actually look great with a long bob.)
Unfortunately, Helen is not Buffy and thus, cannot escape her fate. After watching her ex-boyfriend and a cop die in front of her eyes during and following the pageant, she becomes a victim herself. Helen’s death takes place in and around her family’s store, the place she ended up working after her New York dreams were crushed (of course she was relegated to “women’s fragrances”). There, she witnesses yet another death (this time, it’s her jealous older sister played by Bridgette Wilson).
Helen is eventually chased out of the store and into a nearby alley by The Fisherman. Her final moments may be set to fireworks and the cheery fanfare of a nearby marching band, but the fact is, she is hacked to pieces surrounded by garbage cans and discarded tires. It’s a sort of brutal metaphor for consumerism, shedding light on its inherent misogyny and how society has been brainwashed into thinking women have a limited shelf life that can maybe be extended with the right clothes, makeup and hairstyle.
Helen’s death is the film’s most effective scene and Gellar plays it – and, really, all her scenes – with more emotion and subtext than a traditional slasher sidekick. You really are sad to see Helen go, to know that she won’t ever make good on her promise to heal the world through art. In fact, sometimes when I re-watch the film, I turn it off after she dies, as the scenes that follow (yes, including the showdown between Julie and Ben Willis - a.k.a. The Fisherman) are both rushed and unrewarding in comparison.
She might not be I Know What You Did Last Summer’s Final Girl, but Gellar definitely solidified her status as a scream queen by playing (and dare I say, slaying) Helen Shivers. It is arguably her second-best career performance (tied with her stellar turn as the dubious Kathryn Merteuil in the 1999 Les Liasions Dangereuses adaptation Cruel Intentions) and should be celebrated by horror fans on an annual basis (no fireworks please). At the very least, it should be considered I Know What You Did Last Summer’s crowning achievement. Helen may not have survived the Southport massacre of 1997, but she lives on through Gellar’s killer turn, and this we will always know.