Written by: Leigh Janiak, Kyle Killen, & Phil Graziadei, R.L. Stine (books)
Directed by: Leigh Janiak
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr.
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"It began as a prank...and ended in murder."
For the Scholastic Book Fair generation, Fear Street was a rite of passage. When it was time to put away childish things like Goosebumps—and, boy, was it tough to part ways with that cool hardcover edition that screamed when you opened the cover—you graduated up to R.L. Stine’s other series, the one that offered more forbidden thrills. The thing about Fear Street is that it somehow felt a little more dangerous, even for those of us who had started to get a little more brave in the video store horror section. They were sort of like the stories you’d tell at a sleepover: macabre spook tales with grim fits that would ultimately leave you with a little nervous laughter. In retrospect, they really hit well during that sweet spot in our lives where we can still be a little creeped out but recognize it’s all in good fun.
For her adaptation, writer/director Leigh Janiak hasn’t translated any particular Fear Street story for the screen, opting instead to capture the spirit of the books while slightly leaning on some of their interconnected mythology. She wants to recall those late nights spent reading these things under your covers and scaring yourself, almost as if you were trying to get away with something but the joke was ultimately on you. And if the first entry, Fear Street 1994, is any indication, Janiak and company have successfully done just that, conjuring up lucid memories of one of those half-remembered 90s slumber parties and spray-painted them in Halloween day-glo. More to the point, it feels like what you thought the books were, making the explicit the violent, lurid thrills that were mostly implied: those books were still for young readers, after all, but the film adaptation feels aimed at the now grown-up generation that was once weaned on them.
It also owes a small debt to 90s slashers, and it tips its blood-spattered blade vigorously in that direction with an opening scene that’s less an homage to Scream and more an outright invocation, right down to sporting a recognizable actress you might expect to lead the film. In this case, it’s Maya Hawke playing Heather, a disaffected mall bookstore clerk (B. Dalton’s because this film leaves few nostalgia buttons left unpushed) who finds herself terrorized by after hours phone calls. She assumes it’s her weirdo friend Ryan playing a prank, but it’s clear that whoever it is means business when they show up in a skull costume and start stalking her with a huge knife. They’re ultimately successful, but, in a departure from Scream, the authorities show up and blow away the killer. It turns out it was Ryan all along, who snapped and went on a killing spree, killing seven others in addition to his friend.
A movie that once looked to be set in a mold suddenly feels knocked off its axis, and it’s up to a neon-splashed credits sequence to bring us up to speed. Ryan’s spree is the latest in the long, macabre history of Shadyside, a town that has seen its residents randomly embark on spree killings for centuries. Local lore traces it back to a 17th century woman condemned as a witch, who may or may not still be haunting the town. After a group of kids disturb her grave following Heather’s vigil, they come face to face with their town’s sordid history when maniacal ghouls hunt them down, looking to take vengeance for their recklessness.
Despite the opening sequence, Fear Street 1994 isn’t exactly a conventional slasher movie: yes, it sports a trio of indelibly costumed ghouls stalking a bunch of teenagers, but it doesn’t unfold with the same verve as something like Scream. Instead, it’s more akin to the hell raising in Night of the Demons, only it sprawls all across town, weaving its carnage through a mall, a hospital, a school, and a supermarket. With the exception of a slight mid-movie lull where the characters are sorting out the mythology and trying to ensnare their ghastly tormentors, Fear Street 1994 has a boundless, snappy energy that defies the usual stalk-and-slash routine.
That might be a little disappointing for anyone craving straightforward slasher mayhem, and even I have to admit it could use a few more kills to punch up the violence during that slightly listless stretch. But when Fear Street 1994 does have its knives out, it’s a blast, especially when it regains its footing for a sharp climax, where its mean streak is on full display. Janiak stages some absolutely vicious mayhem, dispensing with characters you assume to be safe with a devilish twist of the knife. One of them goes out in the film’s signature kill scene, the one you’d breathlessly be rushing back to school to tell your buddies about on Monday morning before inviting them over the next weekend to show it off.
The “downtime,” so to speak, works well enough. This group of kids is nice enough, even if the screenplay leans into the jaded 90s kid trope quite heavily. Kiana Maderia is the lead as Deena Johnson, a band geek who doesn’t see the point of anything anymore since her girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Fraser) recently moved over to rival Sunnyvale. The drama of this rough relationship patch underpins the horror stuff well enough, especially when it becomes clear the ghouls are specifically after Sam. Joining the couple are Kate and Simon (Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger), a couple of whip-smart fast-talkers trying to finance their escape out of Shadyside by pushing prescription drugs. They most reflect the film’s Kevin Williamson influence, spitting affected dialogue and wearing irony like it’s going out of style. I’m sure some critics of my generation will wonder if kids are really like this these days, bringing everything full circle since we had to hear the same thing about Scream upon release. I’m not sure if they do, but it’s besides the point since they prove to be charming enough screen presences. The kids are alright, and they have to be for something like this to work.
My favorite of the bunch is Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), Deena’s wallflower younger brother who spends most of his time in AOL chat rooms and researching the town’s history. He has a genuine sweetness to him that counteracts the older kids’ cynicism, and he doesn’t wield his knowledge with smarm and irony (like Randy in Scream, god love him). A character like this—who falls just on the right side of being precocious in his quest to “man up” and recognize his own strength—can be tricky to pull off in this kind of horror movie, but he winds up being the crucial piece. Josh is essentially the same age as the ideal Fear Street reader, and his adolescent presence helps the film hit that sweet spot, even if it is making all of the sex and violence more explicit than the books ever did.
Speaking of how the kids talk these days, Fear Street 1994 is sometimes content to be all vibes. Janiak outfits it with that slick, Dimension-era sheen and bathes it in neon, evoking the candy-colored covers that lured us to the books in the first place. By now you’ve probably heard that it’s eager to remind us of the 1994 of it all with retro shout-outs (like an Orange Julius cup being crushed apropos of nothing) and a soundtrack littered with obvious 90s hits. It’s true, especially of the early-going, where you wonder just how much of the budget was spent just to secure snippets of the era’s most recognizable songs before the film thankfully settles in and goes easy on the jukebox. Ultimately, it pulls off a nice balancing act of weaving nostalgia through the proceedings instead of leaning on it as a prop. In a less heralded touch, Halloween lingers in the air, providing some nice trimming to accent the film’s playful atmosphere. Likewise, the trio of ghouls is the stuff of trick-or-treating gone haywire: the simple but evocative skull mask returns from the prologue, joined by a hulking ‘70s camp slasher and a demented ‘60s teen girl with an affinity for singing oldies. They’re only a sampling of the town’s deep roster of maniacs, many of whom are only briefly glimpsed but will hopefully return in the next two installments.
Keeping that in mind—that 1994 is the first of a trilogy—is critical: while this entry stands alone fairly well, it’s obviously the first piece of a larger puzzle since Janiak is painting this lore across an entire triptych of terror. This one pretty much hits the ground running but takes just enough time to lay some foundation that should allow the sequels to further explore the mythos that’s lurking in the background here. It also helps that 1978 looks to fully deliver on the slasher carnage this one leaves you craving a little bit. In a sharp move, Netflix has opted to space them out over the course of a week, a release pattern that almost recaptures what it was like to tear through one of the books and switch it out for a new one at the library. Maybe it’s also the universe’s way of making up for the fact that these are the first features Janiak has directed since 2014’s incredible Honeymoon, one of the past decade’s more underappreciated horror efforts. I’m not going to argue against it, though I can’t help but think how good kids these days have it, only having to wait a week for an honest-to-god sequel to just appear on their TV when we used to wait at least a year. Sorry, I had to shake a fist at the youngsters at some point—you know, rites of passage and all that.
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