Fear Street Part One: 1994 review – The ’90s as vintage means I am dying

Fear Street Part One: 1994 review – The ’90s as vintage means I am dying

Netflix has thrown a considerable amount of marketing weight behind the Fear Street trilogy, and as a fan of horror movies, quite specifically slashers, this is a very exciting thing. This ambitious project is as follows: on three consecutive Fridays, a feature length entry in an anthology is released, the plot of each dating back decades prior to the previous entry. All are “based on” the R.L. Stine novel series of the same name, but none seem to be based on any one specific story. It’s a branding/tonal thing, and for the most part, it works.

Part One, set in the ancient year of 1994, opens in a shopping mall. The ’90s details are very accurate, if my memory serves (and it likely doesn’t, as I am now very old and going through severe mental decline). There are no adults in sight, a trend which holds true for almost the entire film, and a few of the teenaged workers are closing up shop at their minimum wage jobs. Heather (Maya Hawke, the most a person has ever looked like a perfect 50/50 amalgamation of their parents) is about to wrap things up at B. Dalton. She plans to hitch a ride home with a friend, but before she can pull down the gate and turn down her Nine Inch Nails CD, she is attacked by a Scream-esque masked killer.

It’s a strong opening, and one that sets the stage for what follows quite nicely. Yes, this film takes a page from the television school of cinematography, which blurs the line between the two mediums in a way that often cheapens the overall feel, but this is also very much an R-rated, goretastic slasher. A lot of people die in gruesomely bloody ways, so who cares if it looks like an episode of Riverdale? Big Cherry Falls vibes. Some criticisms will mock the way this film stacks needle drops for its first 30 minutes or so, but you know what other movie does that? Scream.

The opening murders at the mall shake the town of Shadyside, but not the more privileged sister town of Sunnyvale (where it’s likely the Hawks are gearing up to injure Adam Banks in order to hurt the Ducks). The teens who live in Shadyside (seriously, there are no parents) recognize that this is just another in a long line of murders in the history of their violent town, but fail to understand that there may be a connection between generations – a connection which is mostly explained to us in the film’s well-designed opening crawl. We soon meet Deena (Kiana Madeira), a young woman whose alcoholic father is entirely absent, and who is pretty much the sole caretaker for her younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.). She cleans up her father’s beer cans, admonishes Josh for using AOL for too long (it’s very expensive), and mourns the departure of her ex-girlfriend, whose parents’ divorce had her unceremoniously swept off to Sunnyvale, effectively terminating her and Deena’s secret relationship.

There’s a lot of half-cooked thematic material here, and while it’s all admirable, the incomplete nature of it makes for a bit of schizophrenia amongst the characters. The idea of dueling towns divided by privilege is potentially compelling, but is only ever invoked in forced moments of didacticism. The complete absence of parents robs this social demarcation of it’s thematic potential and turns it into what feels like two towns of dickhead kids who hate each other because kids are dickheads. While the film does indeed hint that perhaps supernatural forces are a bit at play in fueling this divide, perhaps it’ll take the second and third entry to really bring this point home. In a vacuum, however, it feels incomplete.

Same goes for the sexuality of our heroine. Being that she’s into girls, the film wants us to believe that her ex-girlfriend Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch) has wronged her by moving to another town, and by not telling her parents that she, too, is not heterosexual. But the absence of Samantha’s mother until the very end of the film weakens this notion as well. Instead of framing their relationship as confusing for both parties (as teenage romance tends to be), it’s framed with Deena being owed a problem-free relationship while her girlfriend is wrong for being confused about her sexuality at 17 (and for moving away with her family, as if she had a choice). It’s odd at best, and at worst, Deena comes across as abusive (and her actions throughout the movie strongly suggest that she’s a sociopath of sorts — it’s very weird, and she is very violent).

There’s also a scene where our entire roster of characters suddenly drop everything and get real horny for a while. I don’t mean to be a prude (and please understand that I am now very, very old), but it’s another strange choice that doesn’t bode well for the characters on the whole, at least in terms of any sort of consistency of behavior. It is admittedly handled in a charming way, though.

But now that my complaints are out of the way, I want to make one thing clear: Fear Street rocks.

Almost immediately, the bodies start piling up, and in between the carnage is a hearty amount of humor and heart to keep us caring about the characters (even if our heroine and her friends are indeed dangerous people by any reasonable metric). Deena and Samantha gather a group of fellow parentless teens, all of whom bring an individual skill set to help to put an end to the carnage. As they dodge axes, knives, bullets, and claws, a larger mythology is constructed, and it’s the building of this mythology that has me excited for future entries in the series.

There’s something supernatural behind the splattery kills, and it’s something that stems from way back into the dual histories of Shadyside and Sunnyvale, which the subsequent entries in the anthology will surely explore.

Watching Fear Street, the pervading feeling is one of fun. It’s a delight to watch a group of energetic teens run from a killer while trying to solve the mystery behind it, all the while their numbers dwindle due to hyper-violence (there’s a gore gag with a bread slicer that made me squee with delight). It’s a formula as old as the genre itself, but it’s been a while since one so solid and accessible came down the pike. And to do so in the ambitious form of an interconnected anthology trilogy is exactly the type of gimmick that horror has historically been the prime genre to employ. And it seems that the “event” nature of releasing these on a weekly basis has already proven to be a success in creating that fun watercooler buzz that comes with scheduled programming (a notion that was injured by the OnDemand era, and finished off by COVID-19).

So join the party, you’ll be glad you did. You’ll have to forgive some rough characterizations and some hokey dialogue, BUT WHEN HAS THAT EVER BEEN A PROBLEM FOR HORROR FANS?!?

Directed by Leigh Janiak

Written by R.L. Stine, Kyle Killen, Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak

Starring Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Julia Rehwald, David W. Thompson

Rated R, Runtime 107 minutes

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