Fear Street Part 1: 1994 (2021)
Face the evil.
Created to appeal to a slightly older demographic, novelist R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series of books was developed in the late eighties/ nineties to tap into the then-ravenous Young Adult market. Written by the ‘Stephen King of children’s literature,’ the books were marketed as being edgier, more violent, and raunchier than Stine’s Goosebumps series, which drew much younger readers. The Fear Street books hopped between different genres — from ghost stories to murder mysteries to urban legends to scary supernatural stuff. And honestly, they were great; I would know, there’s still a huge heap of ‘em sitting at my dad’s place.
Given its massive success (Scholastic books sold millions of copies around the world), the IP was eventually picked up by studio 20th Century Fox in 2015 (pre the Disney acquisition), who took a massive gamble and shot three feature-length movies back-to-back, which were set to hit theatres one month apart. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as Fear Street was eventually pulled from the schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then sold to Netflix, who are releasing the trilogy on their streaming service over three successive Fridays in July — the 2nd, 9th, and the 16th.
Directed by the talented Leigh Janiak, Honeymoon (2014), Fear Street, aka the Fear Street trilogy, differs from many other book-to-film adaptations. Firstly, it’s not based on any one specific novel, rather the kitsch, campy tone of the entire teenage series, the story taking place in the fictionalized horror-plagued town of Shadyside, Ohio, where all the books are based. Secondly, the trilogy spans several decades over three-hundred years — 1994, 1978, and 1666 — with each movie being a throwback to a particular era in horror, filmmaker Janiak paying homage to films like Scream (1996), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), Friday the 13th (1980), The Crucible (1996), and even Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015). Lastly, while every chapter (kinda) works as a self-contained chiller, the films are inter-linked and tell an overarching story that’s centered around a common foe. The whole thing comes across like a mini-series-type of event with a Stranger Things vibe, one with enough blood and gore, suspense, and genuine surprises to keep viewers coming back for more.
The first film, Fear Street Part 1, is set in 1994 and focuses on the high school and mall culture of the nineties. It opens with a prologue where bookstore employee Heather Watkins (Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke) is stabbed to death by a teen (David W. Thompson) in a skeleton mask. It’s the umpteenth time someone’s been viciously slaughtered in Shadyside (or Shittyside), which is dubbed the murder capital of the United States. The neighboring town, Sunnyvale, however, is the complete opposite, an affluent, strangely crime-free area where nothing bad seems to happen. Many of the diverse Shadyside kids believe that a witch known as Sarah Fier placed a curse on their township hundreds of years ago, causing it to become the dead-end community of America.
Queer Shadyside teen Deena Johnson (Kiana Madeira), however, doesn’t believe in the supernatural curse and is convinced that the town itself makes people go cuckoo. She’s also angry that her girlfriend Samantha ‘Sam’ Fraser (Olivia Scott Welch) has moved to Sunnyvale to live with her snooty divorced mother. Deena and Sam have it out at each other at a candlelit vigil for Heather and the other Shadyside murder victims prior to a big rivalry football game between the Sunnyvale Devils and the Shadyside Witches, but a brawl breaks out between the sides. This feud is continued on the road, which causes the car that Sam is seated in to veer off the track and smash into some trees, rocks, and bushes below; though not fatally wounded, Sam stumbles out of the wreckage and has a quick vision of Fier’s dark past before being rushed to hospital. Later, Deena and her friends begin to see some of Shadyside’s worst serial killers emerge from the dead, these ex-murderers targeting the teens for some strange reason. But, after realizing that Sam touched Fier’s bones at the site of the car accident, disturbing her grave, they assume that they’ve upset the witch and hatch a plan to undo the damage in order to send the killers back to whence they came.
More fun than frightening, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is relatively easy to digest, the story by Janiak, Phil Graziadei, Honeymoon (2014), and Kyle Killen, The Beaver (2011), a mix between full-on slasher and lesbian love story. There are a few flat spots here and there, mainly when the proceedings get bogged down by rushed, lackluster exposition detailing the history of the Shadyside Wiccan. Still, the colorful retro production design by Scott Kuzio, Barry (2016), and vibrant Day-Glo palette brought to life by cinematography by Caleb Heymann, The Mortuary Collection (2019), keep things devilishly delectable on a visual level. There are tons of nods and winking references to horror flicks of yesteryear, too, along with Stine’s stuff — my favorite being Stine’s ‘The Wrong Number,’ which pops up in the first act. We also get a bunch of nostalgic Gen-Xer needle drops, such as Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer,’ Sophie B. Hawkins’ ‘Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover’ (so good and perfectly timed), and Garbage’s ‘Only Happy When It Rains,’ although the latter was actually released in 1995 (?). Additionally, the kills are gruesome and gooey and should please those who like blood-splattered cinema, the best involving a bread slicer.
What really makes the whole thing pop, though, is the clearly defined characters and the performances that bring these people to life. Relative newcomer Kiana Madeira, who took me a while to warm to, does a good job as self-assured protagonist Deena. Moreover, she shares a cute chemistry (an integral ingredient for this story) with co-star Olivia Scott Welch, Panic (2021), who’s also solid.
The real standouts, though, are the support players, mainly Julia Rehwald, who kicks butt and delivers a star-making turn as Deena’s prim yet quick-witted, drug-selling valedictorian and cheerleader friend Kate. Fred Hechinger, The Woman in the Window (2021), is a blast as Kate’s pill-popping business partner and the third member of this Scooby Gang, the laid-back, wise-cracking Simon, who provides most of the film’s laughs. Benjamin Flores Jr., Rim of the World (2019), is another welcome addition to the team, playing Deena’s internet-messenger-using brother Josh. And, oh, he conveniently happens to be well-versed in town’s violent past. Finally, Australia’s Ashley Zukerman isn’t bad as Sunnyvale Sheriff Nick Goode, who clearly knows a thing or two about the mysterious happenings in Shadyside.
Paying tribute to Stine’s source material, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is a good old-fashioned throwback slasher that kicks off this trilogy in blood-soaked style. It’s got a pitch-perfect tone, some delightful performances, and gallons of blood. What’s not to like? Plus, Janiak and her team set up the pieces for the next two installments, this chapter concluding with a killer revelation that’ll have viewers dying to see what’s next.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is currently streaming on Netflix