Premise: A circle of teenage friends accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have plagued their town for over 300 years. Welcome to Shadyside.
In the 1990s, R.L. Stine’s Fear Street was like a big brother horror book series to Goosebumps. While Goosebumps was geared toward preteens, Fear Street catered to a more mature (relatively speaking) teen audience and featured more gruesome scares than its kid brother counterpart. Set in the town of Shadyside, Fear Street told anthologized stories of gore and horror throughout the cursed land. Now director Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) and Netflix are delivering a trilogy of Fear Street films, with each entry telling a Shadyside story from a specific year. The trilogy is releasing weekly and is off to a terrific start with its bloody and energetic first entry, Fear Street Part One: 1994.
The film immediately lives up to its subtitle as Fear Street Part One opens with a riff on Scream‘s iconic opening sequence from 1996, complete with slight stunt casting for the Stranger Things era of genre entertainment. It’s an absolute delight for those of us who came of age in the slasher era of the 90s and the homage is handled with the reverence and slick style it deserves. It’s also surprisingly gruesome without being gratuitous, which is a tightrope balancing act of tone and atmosphere that can be difficult to pull off but shines in this film.
After coming a little close to patterning itself too much after Scream in its first act, Fear Street Part One wisely pivots from 90s slasher homage to its own myth building. We learn Shadyside has a contentious rivalry with neighboring affluent Sunnyvale and local teen Deena (Kiana Madeira) is working through a breakup and caring for herself and her younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr) while their alcoholic father is absent on a bender. It’s your standard small town America fare. Oh, and the residents of Shadyside seem to have a predisposition toward violent killing sprees that the locals blame on a witch from the 1600s. Standard stuff, right?
This is where Fear Street Part One really shines. The world building and the way the film establishes its lore works well to give Shadyside its own identity and break the film free from the shackles of 90s homage. This is much needed as this is the first of three feature films centering on the lore of the town. Fear Street Part One does pay homage and namecheck various pop culture properties of the era (and even earlier references), but it never feels as forced or gimmick-laden as it would if the film concentrated solely on 90s references. Sure, there are calculated Radiohead and Pixies needle drops and one slightly silly landline phone answering machine bit in which it isn’t 100% clear if the humor is intentional or not; but the mythology of Shadyside and the potential witch that curses the town’s hallow ground makes up for the film’s few misfires.
The teens at the center of the mayhem are the aforementioned Deena and Josh, who are joined by temporary drug dealer Kate (Julia Rehwald), underachiever jokester Simon (Fred Hechinger), and Deena’s ex turned Sunnyvale resident Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). The unlikely band of heroes work well together in all their Stranger Things (and, really, every teen slasher ever) style of independence and initiative taking. There are very few adults to be seen in Shadyside, aside from Sheriff Goode (Ashley Zukerman) and a neighbor that a babysitting Kate pawns her charges off on when the film reaches its Halloween style babysitter stalking homage section. Fear Street Part One is all the better for it, however, because focusing on teenagers and teen logic to resolve the crazy curse that rages unchecked in Shadyside is just flat out entertaining. And the lengths to which these kids go to try to gain the upper hand reaches some insane levels of bonkers plot developments. In other words, this is a highly entertaining romp of a horror film.
Somewhat surprisingly, the interpersonal drama at the center of Fear Street Part One carried a fair amount of emotional resonance. The drama of Deena and Sam’s break up and their banding together to fight the evil within Shadyside is presented with an earnestness and care that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a splatterfest of a slasher film. The other characters sort of fall by the wayside as a result, but the crux of the drama rests on Deena and Sam and, thankfully, Madeira and Welch carry that weight exceptionally well with strong chemistry amidst the craziness of the script.
There’s plenty of gore and bloodshed in Fear Street Part One and to spoil any set pieces or kills in this review would probably incur the wrath of a killer in a skull mask. Suffice it to say, the film handles its gore in great fashion. The right choices were made when factoring in when to cut away from a stab (or other violent act) or linger on it to deliver the optimal tension release or scare factor. Likewise, there are a few surprising moments where certain kills payoff in big ways and are effectively frightening.
The choice to present the chronology of the trilogy’s story in descending order (Part Two is 1978, Part Three is 1666) is an interesting one that makes sense by the end of Fear Street Part One. It all but guarantees the trilogy will dive deeper and deeper into the mythology of Shadyside throughout the next two films. With Fear Street Part Two: 1978 releasing July 9th, and Fear Street Part Three: 1666 concluding the trilogy on July 16th, audiences will know soon enough how well Fear Street works as a complete trilogy. For now, Fear Street Part One: 1994 is a strong start to a fun, gruesome story with a lot of potential for the overarching storyline.
Fear Street Part One: 1994 premieres July 2nd on Netflix.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
Leave a Reply