Synopsis – 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.
My Take – Like most teenage readers growing up in the 90s, I too found author R.L. Stine‘s work the go to for everything thrills and chills, starting with his bestselling Goosebumps series of novels, and then slowly graduating to Fear Street. By contrast, if Goosebumps was a young reader’s introduction to horror, his other series, Fear Street, immediately felt more adult, focusing more on adolescent angst and high school drama, amidst the supernatural horror that delivered genuine terror.
While Fear Street never earned the same degree of cultural and commercial success that Goosebumps received, as evident from the dozen of spinoff series it spawned, along with the very popular 1995-1998 television series adaption, and the two live-action feature films, enjoyable 2015 feature and the tamer, weaker 2018 sequel, it was about time Fear Street got the mainstream recognition it deserved.
A dream recognized by this Leigh Janiak directed set of trilogy, which are releasing over the next three weeks on Netflix. Drawing elements from various 90s slashers tucked inside a supernatural horror on the lines of It Follows (2014), the first installment of the three interconnected films (Part 2: 1978 and Part 3: 1666) that centers on the dark and violent history of the fictional town of Shadyside over the course of 350 years, a history that may stem from an ancient tale of a witch, is straight off a refreshing old school flick, with splashes of humor and gore, all repacked for a new audience.
The film isn’t a straight adaptations of any book in particular, but instead riff on and reiterate the edgy-teen vibe Stine sought as he tried to tap into an audience that grew out of his more youth-friendly scary stories.
Sure, the entire film is set as a big old romp, but thankfully is sharp enough to embrace the pure enjoyment of horror without going too far. If director Janiak has something similar in store for the next two entries as well, as a fan of the series, this is a cause for celebration.
Set in 1994, the film opens with Heather Watkins (Maya Hawke), a mall store clerk, who becomes part of a mindless mass murder carried out by her best friend, Ryan Torres (David W. Thompson), until he is shot and killed by the responding police man, Nick Goode (Ashley Zukerman). With tragedy further adding to the many murders that have taken place in the fictional town over centuries. Some believe that a witch named Sarah Fier, who was burned at the stake in 1666, is the cause of the continued killings, inhabiting various people throughout the years to do her murderous deeds as a curse.
The main story follows a group of teenagers led by Deena (Kiana Madeira), who’s still pining after her ex-girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who’s recently moved to neighboring Sunnyvale, which is very safe compared to Shadyside. And when an unfortunate car accident stemming from a Sunnyvale vs. Shadyside conflict leads to Sam having a vision of the witch, the both, along with Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), Deena’s brother, who is obsessed with the knowledge of the killings, and her best friends, Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger) become the target of some supernatural killers.
Right from the opening credits, the film hooks you by introducing the wider myth surrounding the town of Shadyside in a gripping way that makes you want explore further. The visions of past killers and their crimes frantically flash across the screen as you gain a better perspective of the potency of this evil’s power and how long it has ensnared this town in its grasp.
Unlike recent horror films that tie into social conventions, the film refreshingly keeps it simple by letting the curse be a curse, and the witch be just a witch.
While it might be easy to compare the film to something like Stranger Things, it works as homage to the works of filmmaker Wes Craven. It capture the magic of 90s, from the usage of AOL to mixtapes and beat-up school bus seats, the film takes you back in time with ease and realism.
Sure, the film lacks the satirical bite of Scream (1996) or that killer hook of slashers like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) possessed, but director Janiak reaffirms her take by making the kills brutal and unforgiving, creating a structurally sound slasher that doesn’t hold back. For example, a scene sees a head getting thrust into the blades of a bread slicer. Here, director Janiak stages some gory kills to make good on that R-rating and delivers on a sizeable body count and gore quotient.
By all appearances, the film is a conventional contemporary riff on ‘90s horror classics, but the film’s characters, and in particular their relationship and rapport, elevates it beyond a simple send-up to its forebears. It also helps that the chemistry between the five leads is mostly impeccable, with each of them offering a different, but equally useful set of skills and insight to aid in bringing down what’s haunting them.
Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch have electric, tangible chemistry and it’s refreshing to have an LGBTQ romance leading a horror film. They create a convincing dynamic as an estranged pair of closeted lovers whose relationship is strained by their differences in class and social status. Julia Rehwald is a snappy, confident, strong support and pairs stunningly well with Fred Hechinger’s fast-talking, hilarious quirkiness, and Benjamin Flores Jr.’s calming voice of reason.
Maya Hawke is compelling as the most recognizable face of the film in the opening sequence that pays clear homage to the Scream franchise. In smaller roles, Ashley Zukerman, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Gillian Jacobs, and Jordyn DiNatale are also good. On the whole, ‘Fear Street Part One: 1994′ is a perfectly fun slasher horror with likable characters and effective scares.
Directed – Leigh Janiak
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes