The Croaker Queen - why the emotional pull of Helen Shivers?
Updated: Jul 29
The lead of I Know What You Did Last Summer (IKWYDLS) was Jennifer Love Hewitt's character Julie James, right? I'm not so sure. Sarah Michelle Gellar's character Helen Shivers, if you're like me, was just so much more interesting, but why?
Overall, I give IKWYDLS a 2.5 out of 5--it's not exactly the best slasher. In my opinion, the story-line is too convoluted. I love watching 90s slashers however, so I comfort-watch this film every chance that I get. But my most recent screening was to breakdown what is behind the emotional pull of Helen Shivers (Spoiler alerts ahead, if you haven't seen the movie. I don't know how likely that is, but I still play fair).
(PSST! I talk about this & more in my episode Croaker Queen & Globikant Part 1 )
The crowning / Independence Day
In the first scene, we see Helen closing out the competition and getting crowned Croaker Queen. Note that she, unlike her competitors, is the only one wearing black. While black is a sophisticated color, I believe that this swimsuit color choice is a foreshadowing of the darkness that is soon to consume Helen.
Whether it was snatching the microphone away from the emcee or chopping it up with her friends afterwards, Helen is very open about her dreams of moving to New York and making a big splash. Of course she's crowned on Independence Day, because this is the first step towards her own independence. She keeps her crown on for most of the night because it's a major part of her identity. Getting that crown is like the universe giving her its blessing.
Here at the beginning of Helen's story, many of us can relate to her as a youth who is high on a major accomplishment and hopeful for the future. Sadly, moments like the crowning are fleeting and our dreams can sometimes take detours as Helen is soon to find out. Will she take responsibility for the role she plays in her own destruction? Or will she cling to it as just as comfortably as she wears her black swimsuit and crown?
After a seemingly fatal hit & run, our Queen makes a decision that's a little less than regal--to dump the body and keep everything a secret. As she and her friends throw the victim into the pier, he unexpectedly snatches Helen's crown and takes it down with him. This implies that the secret's cost is Helen's glory. Barry is able to retrieve it for her, because the universe is not unkind and gives us chances to make things right, but will Helen learn that and make the right decision before it costs her more than the physical crown?
One more chance...or several
A little less than a year later, and we find Helen selling "women's fragrances, ten feet to your left" in her family's shop Shivers which is quite the distance from her dreams of New York. It's sad, even if justice. In fact, none of her accomplices have had much luck with their dreams either: Julie's flunking, Barry's not a star NFL player, and Ray is swindling a local grieving woman into sleeping with him under false pretenses. To make matters worse, they're getting little cryptic slips with the movie title on them! Helen and her co-conspirators need to see these slips for they are: the signaling of their last chance to make things right.
When the slips are ignored, our killer materializes to dish out physical follow-ups. The reasons as to why he chooses not to simply kill them when given the chance are unimportant--the reality is, reporting the incident is the right thing to do. But they decide to investigate instead, and after a full day of doing so, Helen rationalizes:
"It was an accident." Yes it was, but she's missing the point that reporting it might stop the killer (not likely) or get the police involved who can help protect them and get to the bottom of this (more likely).
"We aren't that powerful," Helen says. But we are all a lot more powerful than we believe. Here, she just sounds defeated.
"Maybe he wanted to die," Helen still tries to rationalize, and I'm angry with her for it. The anger, of course, is short-lived as we get to the secret sad parts of Helen Shivers' life:
Feeling left behind by her high school best friend - when Helen tells Julie that she misses her, lets just say that the sentiment wasn't reciprocated. Helen is learning a harsh truth that many of us suffered through that high school friends tend not to last. We grow up and become different people, and sometimes that means someone feels left behind.
Cold & distant father - When Helen returns home and greets her father, he ignores her and says nothing in response.
Bitch sister - Elsa, Helen's older sister, taunts her and refers to her as a "washed-up, dried-out has-been" as she's getting ready for bed. After this encounter and the one with her father from before, we understand that Helen's dreams of New York were also hopes for her to getaway.
The last thing Elsa says to Helen is "You and your hair, so pathetic" which brings me to my next point.
“You & your hair,” Elsa
The moment I first saw Helen pulling out her hair the next morning, I was reminded of how stress can cause hair loss as well. The crown atop seems to suggest that the weight of it seems to be the cause—how the pressure to live up to the expectations of our own teenage dreams can stress us out. This scene, from my perspective, perfectly illustrates the cost of bad choices and how dark secrets can destroy us.
Helen standing up for what’s right is so much more than just being a goody-two; it is learning the value of being truthful with ourselves. Yes, being truthful to the police would have been helpful, but nothing is worse than lying to ourselves. Helen by rationalizing, especially in the car scene with Julie, is lying to herself. When we do that, we rob ourselves of an opportunity to grow. By being real with herself, she can put the dark past and bad decision behind her. By leaving that baggage behind, she can be real about how much she hates her current career situation and focus all her energy on changing it and eventually finding her happiness.
Independence Day, although Julie says “it’s his day”
Independence Day, officially a year later, and Helen has implicitly decided to go down with the secret. In the parade, she smiles at Barry as she remembers better times. She sees the killer everywhere.
Barry's murder scene screams that your friends or your little boyfriend can't save you. "I'll be needing this," the host says as he finally takes the crown for good and just like that, her reign ends.
The next murder scene of her police escort screams that now the police can't save you. Up until this point, there were so many chances to do the right thing. Now, it's too late.
Elsa's death scene is community service, because she was just awful. But it also screams that not even your family can save you. When the consequences of your bad decisions and/or death come knocking, it's inevitable.
By this point, the sound score and desolation bring feelings of sorrow for Helen on her run. You want her to make it so badly, but it hurts to know that it’s too late for her. You don’t know how, but you just know death’s near. And her death scene is always hard for me to watch, its so scary because you just want someone to look over – someone to notice and do something.
The dark secret consumes Helen, but it wasn’t too late for her to be successful and to be happy. She’s slain mercilessly on Independence Day, never quite finding her own. And near her people—her adoring fans and neighbors—who are so close, but never truly see her. Now, it’s too late as she’s dying right in front of us without our knowing. When (in reality) she had been dying in front of us all along for the past year. Seriously, we never know what our Croaker Queens are really going through. I think that keeping up pageant appearances while suffering is something many of us can relate to. The news will speak highly of Helen Shivers, when her best weapon all along was to just be real/honest/truthful with herself (and, of course, the police).
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I Know What You Did Last Summer directed by Jim Gillespie, screenplay by Kevin Williamson, and produced by Neal H. Moritz, Erik Feig, & Stokely Chaffin