Three horror films with an arc that spans centuries, released on Netflix weekly: You get a lot of bang for your buck in Fear Street. With each installment existing in a slightly different sub-genre, referencing a whole range of other movies and franchises, the whole thing plays out like a super-packed horror digest. So while its parts might feel derivative, the experience as a whole does not.
Based on the Fear Street books by R.L. Stine, his novels for older teens, Fear Street is gross, gory, and nostalgic enough for adult viewers but also fun and frisky enough to be teen-friendly. Leigh Janiak, whose debut was the eerie horror Honeymoon, heads up all three, bringing a strong Stranger Things vibe—indeed several Stranger Things cast members pop up in Fear Street, including Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink. The director’s clearly a massive horror nerd so this works as a straight up slasher as well as a clever and slightly meta bit of experimental storytelling. On paper it should be a massive hit.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is a post-modern slasher which begins as an overt homage to Scream. It’s late night at the mall and a put-upon shop worker is closing up when she’s suddenly attacked by a knife-wielding killer in a black robe and a scary halloween mask, who has apparently already massacred several other mall workers. Who could be doing this and why? Fortunately, it’s not actually as simple as that…
This is just the opener, a setup to show us that murder and mayhem is business as usual for Shadyside, a town which seems to be cursed. Slayings are commonplace and Shadyside’s extended history is littered with normal people suddenly turning into mass killers. Quite the opposite of affluent neighboring town Sunnyvale, where everyone is a jock or a cheerleader and nothing bad ever happens.
Shadysider Deena (Kiana Madeira), our hero, is heart broken after her girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) moved to Sunnyvale and started dating douchey football star Peter (Jeremy Ford). But Deena’s nice, if nerdy, brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) knows the town has way bigger problems than romance after the mall massacre. Josh thinks there’s a pattern, and it all leads back to a woman named Sarah Fier who was executed in 1666.
Shadyside is a town full of outsiders—these kids are the poor and the marginalized, and even those who do succeed, do it in spite of their surroundings. Deena’s best mates are fast-talking overachiever Kate (Julia Rehwald), who deals drugs on the side, and good-hearted goofball Simon (Fred Hechinger) who is responsible for supporting his family. The soundtrack, meanwhile, bangs with ‘90s indie hits from Garbage, Radiohead, The Pixies, and more. This lot are a likeable bunch of weirdos so we’re rooting for them hard through the formulaic stalk ‘n slash first act until things veer into more interesting supernatural territory.
Fear Street ’94 isn’t just another ’90s slasher, it almost aspires to be ALL ’90s slashers at once, throwing extra rules, antagonists, and bits of mythology at the audience thick and fast. But unlike in actual slashers from the ‘90s, there’s way more diversity here and horny teen tropes are twisted in a genuinely funny, playful, modern way. Meanwhile the shadow of Shadyside is pervasive in the subtext.
Parents in Shadyside are strangely absent, the well-meaning but incompetent cop won’t accept what’s in front of his eyes, and the hospital staff are beleaguered or corrupt. No one escapes Shadyside, everyone is doomed, we’re told, but these are scrappy kids who refuse to give up. There’s real peril here, some gloriously gruesome kills, and enough heart to keep you hooked, even though you might feel like you’ve seen it all before.
Fear Street ‘94 works fine as a standalone, but the joy of this series is going to be discovering how all three films are interlinked. Fear Street ‘94 ends with a tease of what we might see in the sequel, Fear Street Part 2: 1978, which is also sort of a prequel and will take us back to Camp Nightwing where a previous massacre occurred.
Fear Street ’94 isn’t actually scary, so it’s not one for hardcore horror purists who might find themselves craving the original ‘90s teen slashers the movie is aping. Yes, these things have been done before, and yes, perhaps done better, but that’s sort of the point. Scream will be 25 years old this year—that’s long enough ago to count as being retro. Fear Street ‘94 is a loving tribute to a particular era, which manages to avoid cynicism in part due to a talented young cast it’s a pleasure to spend time with. And even better, we only have to wait a week to see what happens next.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is available to stream on Netflix from July 2.