Fear Street Part 1: 1994 arrives heavy with expectation. A loose adaptation of the beloved R.L. Stine teen novel series of the same name – a more grown-up accompaniment to Goosebumps – this first installment has to set the scene for the entire trilogy while telling its own self-contained story and establishing the bona-fides of the era in which it’s set. The task set before director Leigh Janiak, who helmed delightfully twisted relationship-horror Honeymoon before tackling a couple episodes of the loathsome Scream TV series, is a daunting one. That Janiak manages to accomplish most, if not all, of what she sets out to do is impressive. But, if you’re hoping for this generation’s next great slasher, as many are calling it, best to lower your expectations now.
Our heroine is Deena (Kiana Madeira), a grumpy young woman who’s recently broken up with her significant other, Sam, who in one of the film’s strongest twists is revealed to be female rather than male, as most viewers probably assume (Deena’s plaid shirt kind of gives her away to queer audiences, however). She’s tired of living in Shadyside, a dodgy counterpoint to nearby Sunnyvale, a rich, predominantly white area where nothing bad ever happens and to which Sam has recently defected, hence the relationship’s untimely end. In Shadyside, horrific murders happen on a regular basis, the most recent of which took down another young lady (played by Maya Hawke, in a nod to Scream’s infamous opening sequence featuring Drew Barrymore) during her night shift.
The killer wore a skull mask from the local Spencer’s rip-off, and his identity was revealed, which signals right from the outset that Fear Street Part 1 isn’t necessarily following the slasher rule-book, even if there are tons of nerdy Scream references sprinkled throughout – Marco Beltrami even did the score – particularly during the opening sequence. Elsewhere, another killer wearing a bag over his head, The Town That Dreaded Sundown-style, stalked and slashed at a summer camp in 1978 (the setting for the next film) while the sole female murderer, aside from the all-powerful witch pulling the strings (phew!), cut others to ribbons before slitting her own wrists. Before the movie is over, all these killers will have returned to Shadyside to wreak havoc once again. It’s up to Deena, her sweet little brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and BFFs Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger) to save the day, and the town, before it’s too late.
The paranormal element to Fear Street Part 1 will either fill you with dread or glee. For slasher purists, it likely won’t be a welcome development. The whole point of slasher movies is that the killer is terrifyingly human – there’s something about a guy with a knife who just snaps, as Scream 4 so eloquently put it – even if he, and it’s typically a he, is somewhat superhuman, which is obviously the case with Michael Myers. When there is a paranormal element at play, it has to be strong enough not to take away from the killer’s strength; Freddy Krueger makes the dream-world his playpen and Jason Voorhees can time-travel/is immortal, while, in modern terms, Victor Crowley is technically a ghost. Each of them present as terrifying, flesh-and-blood humans. Here, the gang fights off a gaggle of boring, samey ghosts who never feel particularly three-dimensional or scary. The rules of who can and can’t be killed also change at will, which is slightly confusing.
More to the point, there’s just way too much going on to follow three different backstories, none of which is fleshed out (possibly because they will be in later installments). Fear Street Part 1 has the unenviable task of setting up everything that’s going to come after it, so there are moments when the movie doesn’t feel like its own story so much as a bridge to other stories. It’s an appetizer, if you will, for the carnage to come most of which will, hopefully, stick to one setting and be more focused as a result. The film often feels rushed, like there’s no time to sit around luxuriating in what’s going on in a particular scene because we have to get to the next one ASAP. The opening segment, set in a mall, is easily the most effective overall. Nine Inch Nails’ classic “Closer” kicks off a whole butt-load of era-specific needle drops (get that Netflix money!) that, although they start to wear out their welcome, are frequently brilliant, from Rob Zombie’s “More Human Than Human” to Pixies’ “Hey,” which funnily enough also features in “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”
The black-light and neon flourishes look terrific, and Hawke’s performance sells how dangerous the situation is, and how exposed her character suddenly feels in a place that’s usually very comfortable. Likewise, the massive nineties phone she uses to call for help, and the platform sandals that prevent her from running away, are lovely touches that establish the time period eloquently. The nineties setting is strong, but it doesn’t add much once it’s revealed the kids are going to be battling ghosts rather than a living, breathing serial killer. Taking a classic slasher setup and twisting it into something more modern is a smart choice, but considering it’s been less than a year since Freaky was released upon the world, Fear Street Part 1 ends up seeming a bit dated, generic, and sadly safe, too. All the ingredients are there to do something fun, whether paying homage to slasher movies or tearing up the rules for a fresher take, but neither path is taken here.
Still, there are plenty of things to enjoy about this opening installment, from that killer introduction to a death by bread slicer, and an impressively high body count overall (even if the deaths don’t really register). There are some genuine shocks along the way too, particularly a brutal hospital-based kill, while the brother-sister duo of Deena and Josh is classic Goosebumps. The performances from the core cast are committed but bland, and a romance between Josh and Kate feels forced while Simon’s horn-dog shtick should’ve been left in the nineties where it belongs (a joke about wanking is ill-judged to say the least). Deena, meanwhile, is an increasingly annoying character with a depressingly negative outlook, making her difficult to root for. As the tortured Sam, Olivia Scott Welch is the only one who truly makes an impression, even if her decision-making skills leave a lot to be desired. The filmmakers should be commended, too, for including a same-sex make-out scene that’s just as hot and heavy as its numerous straight forebears.
Fear Street Part 1 is paving the way for two more movies, set in 1978 and 1666 respectively, which will hopefully tie the greater story together in a more impactful and satisfying way, so it’s unfair to judge it too harshly as a single entity. Maybe when the whole trilogy is complete, this 1994-set installment will slot more effectively into the greater whole. As it stands, the movie sadly has more in common with the PG-based shenanigans of Stranger Things than the many classic, pulpy slashers it’s imitating.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Leigh Janiak
Writer(s): R.L. Stine (books), Kyle Killen, Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak
Stars: Maya Hawke, Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger
Release date: July 2, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Netflix
Run Time: 107 minutes