After sitting through the 1997 slasher movie based on her 1974 novel I Know What You Did Last Summer, then-63-year-old author Lois Duncan had a message to those who might enter a similar theater: Don’t.
“Don’t go see it,” she reportedly wrote in an email that she sent to friends and family on October 20, 1997, three days after the movie had landed in theaters. ”It is worse than bad. It’s totally sick,” she wrote of the flick that debuted at No. 1 at the box office during the late ’90s slasher boom and would ultimately gross more than $70 million against a reported $17 million budget.
So serious was Duncan about her objections, in fact, that she would go on to speak out against the movie that bore her book’s name several times in the press. Over the course of the next month, give or take, in what amounted to a mini-media tour, she shared her disgust and disdain with no fewer than five outlets around the country. Her daughter Kerry Arquette, a criminologist, recalled during a phone conversation with Jezebel that her mother immediately contacted her after seeing the movie and told her never to see it. She still hasn’t.
By the time of the 1997 movie’s release, Duncan had been a well-known author for decades. She wrote the kind of young adult novels that were staples of school book fairs. Summer of Fear (1976), Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), and I Know What You Did Last Summer were all creepy, suspenseful books—concerned with witchcraft, kidnapping, and manslaughter, respectively—but they weren’t exactly “horror,” and they certainly weren’t slashers. In Duncan’s book, a group of teens who accidentally killed a boy are then haunted by letters bearing the titular warning. In the movie, a similar group of teens receives similar letters, not to mention fatal fishhook wounds by a sadistic villain.
“It’s the last message I would ever want to give kids—that violence is a game and fun,” Duncan said in an article that appeared in Albuquerque Journal, which printed parts of her reaction letter. “The gore was beyond belief. I write suspense and scary stuff, but I have never written gore in my entire life. I have never sensationalized violence. It’s always been a vehicle to show the pain that violence can cause. There’s so little connected to my book (in the movie) that I don’t know why they ever wanted it.”
Duncan’s crusade was about more than standards of taste. The offense she took at the depiction of wanton violence in a property long connected to her name was personal: “My daughter Kait was chased down, and her brains were blown out,” Duncan told the Chicago Sun-Times. “So I’m particularly sensitive about desensitizing kids to violence and turning murder into a game.”
Kaitlyn Arquette had been shot twice in the head while driving on July 16, 1989, in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. For decades, the case went unsolved and to this day, no one has been charged in the killing, though Kerry Arquette expects that to change shortly after a recent confession (more on that in a minute). Duncan kept a blog regarding her daughter’s killing and wrote two books on the subject, 1992’s Who Killed My Daughter? and 2013’s One to the Wolves: A Desperate Mother on the Trail of a Killer. Gang activity and a police cover-up were among the factors Duncan suspected were keeping her dead daughter from posthumous justice.
Now there is an I Know What You Did Last Summer reboot series on Amazon—it has about as much in common with the 1997 movie as the 1997 movie did Duncan’s book, which is to say, virtually none, rendering the property essentially unrecognizable from its source material—but Duncan is no longer around to decry it. She died in 2016 at age 82. But Kerry Arquette thinks she knows what her mother would make of the series, which also contains a good amount of bloody violence.
“I’m sure she’s turning in her grave,” Arquette told Jezebel. “With everything that’s coming out with Kait, it underscores how Mother felt about gratuitous violence, especially when the reality of violence is so horrible and it’s something that you can’t necessarily avoid. If you’ve been through a horrendous murder, it leaves you scratching your head as to why anybody would want to pay money to experience that.” Arquette watched part of the show’s first episode, she said, for the purposes of her interview with Jezebel. At 64—a year older than her mother was when the movie was released—she said the show made her feel old.
“I realized that in some way I had become that cranky old woman who was offended by the grotesqueness of how the young people’s culture is being portrayed,” she said. “I felt like washing myself.”
When Duncan spoke out about the movie in 1997, sharing Kaitlyn’s story in the process, Last Summer’s studio issued an apology of sorts. “It’s a sad story and I think it would be inhuman and insensitive not to have some compassion for that,” Mandalay Entertainment marketing president John Jacobs told The Baltimore Sun. “The truth is, it was not a fact that was well-known to anyone involved in the movie-making process.”
Now 24 years after Duncan aired her distaste, Arquette isn’t taking the violence of the reboot series personally. “My guess would be that they never intended to offend anybody—that is just business, as business does,” she said. “I think the tether between writer and the product, they’re very thin at this point.” (In 1997, the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, reported that Duncan had sold the rights to her book several years prior to the release of its film adaptation, relinquishing creative control and exchange for no residuals, for $150,000.)
While the original Last Summer adaptation debuted in the throes of Duncan’s desperation over the handling of her daughter’s case, the reboot arrived in a much different world. In August, Paul Raymond Apodaca confessed to the murder of Kaitlyn Arquette, in addition to two other women. Apodaca, who has a history of crime against women including a 1995 conviction for raping his stepsister, had long been suspected by the family as playing a role in Kaitlyn’s death because he was the first person at the scene. Police’s failure to obtain a statement from Apodaca is part of what prompted Duncan’s speculation regarding a cover-up.
Today, Arquette believes “police laziness” and ineptitude were more likely the cause. “I think that what happened was Apodaca was a serial murderer who was out hunting for young women because he didn’t get lucky,” she said. “He was angry at females and he was out just hunting, and he shot Kait because she happened to be there.”
While at the time of this story’s publication, Apodaca had yet to be charged with Kaitlyn Arquette’s death (though he was charged for another murder he had confessed to in August), Arquette is confident that it’s imminent.
“The lead detective in the cold case unit has communicated with me [and the family] very closely every step of the way,” she said. “She texts me once or twice a day to let me know how things are proceeding. And there’s no question in my mind that very soon he will be charged. They’re just putting the pieces in place.”
Thirty-two years later—an entire lifetime for Arquette, who was 32 when her 18-year-old sister was killed—Arquette is finally finding some closure.
“It doesn’t close anything emotionally—intellectually, it does provide enormous closure,” she explained. “People, in my experience, tend to sort through things intellectually or emotionally. My way is to go: ‘What happened? Could this have happened? Could that have happened? What about this person? What about that person?’ And so knowing what happened and based on Apodaca’s description of how it happened, she never saw the execution coming. I had always been terrified that she was frightened, and to me, being frightened is worse than being dead. The idea of her being terrified was what haunted me. And it does not sound like she even knew that she had been hit until she had been hit.”
“I believe that [Apodaca’s] confession had a lot to do with Mother’s book Who Killed My Daughter?—he read it.” Arquette continued. “Mother did exactly what Mother intended with that book, which was to make us human, make our pain human, make it so that he or anybody else who knew what was going on couldn’t discount us as the family of that bitch. And Mother, with her brilliant writing, made it impossible for us to be written off and therefore made it impossible for Kait to be written off.”