Written by: Zak Olkewicz and Leigh Janiak (screenplay, story), Phil Graziadei (story), R.L. Stine (books)
Directed by: Leigh Janiak
Starring: Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, and Ryan Simpkins
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Find the truth.
With Fear Street 1994, Leigh Janiak paid homage to the wave of slashers that briefly rejuvenated the genre during the 90s, crafting a film that’s sassy and slick much like the efforts from that era. It’s like an ouroboros of homage, considering Kevin Williamson and his ilk were already paying tribute to the slasher’s bygone golden period, but it provided a solid foundation for this ambitious trilogy, which goes back to the source of sorts in Fear Street 1978, a camp slasher that tries to recapture those glory days. While its success on that front is a mixed bag, this follow-up is fun, sun-splashed time nonetheless as it digs deeper into the trilogy’s mythology and delivers a bigger, bloodier body count. In short, it’s what you want from both a sequel and a middle chapter.
Picking up where 1994 left off, it finds that film’s protagonists in the living room of C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), the sole survivor of a massacre at Camp Nightwing 16 years earlier. Hoping that the details of her survival will illuminate a solution to their own ordeal (Deena’s girlfriend Sam remains possessed), they listen as she describes how an idyllic summer camp went straight to hell. It’s a tale of two sisters, Cindy and Ziggy Berman (Emily Rudd & Sadie Sink), who have grown estranged following the death of their parents. Cindy is the more mature, older sister who has struggled to raise her wilder younger sibling, who’s constantly on the verge of being kicked out of Camp Nightwing. Being forced to grow up way too fast has put Cindy on a straight-and-narrow path that’s also taken her away from former friends and current camp stoners Alice and Arnie (Ryan Simpkins & Sam Brooks). But when the camp book tries to kill counselor and all-around good guy Tommy (McCabe Slye), everyone must band together to fend off Sarah Fier’s latest supernatural emergence.
Fear Street 1978 swaps out the snappy, neon-soaked autumnal vibes for a more leisurely, sun-splashed affair. While it ultimately splatters more gore and delivers a bigger body count than its predecessor, it’s not in any particular hurry to do so. The first kill comes about 40 minutes in, which is practically an eternity in slasher movie time, where even the most deliberately paced entries will at least provide some prologue carnage. However, this one prioritizes both its characters and its own deepening mythology, an approach that almost feels like a gamble with a genre that’s typically preoccupied with killing off its cast post-haste with an economical (read: sometimes virtually non-existent) narrative.
As such, 1978 confirms that Janiak isn’t interested in making typical splatter movies, and once you make peace with that and figure out the speed of these movies, the approach becomes a little bit remarkable. There’s a scavenger hunt element to both films so far that vaguely recalls the books, which often features characters having to piece together a puzzle in deliberate fashion. Slashers, too, often require some lore to account for their mayhem, but it’s often more incidental, unraveled in bursts of exposition or illuminated by a twist ending. Fear Street 1978 dwells on its lore, giving the characters ample space to take center stage as they explore the underground caverns beneath the camp, where centuries-old clues to unlocking the cursed town’s secrets lurk. How many slasher movies dedicate an entire subplot to its characters going on a Goonies style quest that uncovers “Satan’s Stone” and a weird, pulpy mass of pure evil, you know? Maybe it’s more accurate to say these movies incorporate the language of slashers but stop short of actually being slashers.
And if you’re going to make that gambit, it’s imperative that the lore and the characters are compelling enough to carry the proceedings. In this respect, 1978 is an improvement on its already solid predecessor: both the characterizations and performances are dialed down from the first film’s affectations, yielding something that feels a little more natural. Save for some moments where Janiak indulges some loud, outrageous clichés (I’m thinking especially of some over-the-top sex scenes), this isn’t one of those try-hard homages that feels more like someone’s half-assed recollections of films from this era. Rather, it just features a nice, affable group of kids, headlined by Rudd and Sink as the two plucky sisters who have to overcome their trauma to survive. Both of them have a conviction to their screen presence that works and reinforces that their drama isn’t just a matter of course woven between the carnage. There’s something refreshingly unassuming about it, allowing the film to achieve a nice blend of camp movie antics with its eventual bloodshed. Much like with The Burning, I would watch this group of campers if a maniac never showed up.
But we know one is destined to intrude on Camp Nightwing since we heard the sordid tale in the previous film. His slashing is serviceable enough and sports an unrelenting mean streak as he lays waste to a surprising number of campers, with no regard to how old they might be. Fear Street 1978 may have been shot at the same location as Jason Lives, but it doesn’t share its reluctance to put kids in actual peril. I would have liked to see a little bit more variety with the slashing, though, to spice up what’s ultimately a slew of axe murders. Even if the approach does result in a killer gag (much like its predecessor, it has that kill, the one everyone would be eagerly to breathlessly discuss on the schoolyard), it misses some of the demented fun this genre typically offers. Likewise, the killer doesn’t sport his signature garb until the climax, meaning a possessed guy carries out most of the mayhem without the Jason-style burlap sack.
I get it: Janiak doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in making a standard slasher (and it’s also fair that Jason didn’t don his iconic hockey mask until the last third of Friday III), but these nitpicks do nag a bit. Maybe it sounds like asking for more icing on a cake, I’ll cop to that—I do like icing, though. Otherwise, Fear Street 1978 is well done, and is likely the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Nick Antosca’s killer Friday the 13th script on the screen. His take blended the iconic franchise’s carnage with the sunny, rock and roll hangout vibes of Dazed and Confused, a notion Janiak takes quite literally, going so far as to borrow some classic tracks that will forever belong to Linklater’s seminal coming of age film. Nostalgia plays a crucial role, only this time, it’s less about recapturing a specific era and more about recapturing a certain type of movie that those 90s kids grew up watching in the first place, the ones that were eventually deconstructed by the likes of Scream.
For the most part, it’s a successful conjuring that doesn’t fall victim to the pitfalls of homage that so often just result in self-parody. Janiak is too sharp for that and once again takes the material just seriously enough while allowing it to remain light on its feet. With the exception of an awkward, telegraphed twist down the stretch, Fear Street 1978 cleverly advances the story and sets up a surprising, intriguing premise for the trilogy’s final installment. Where the first two films tread familiar ground, the finale looks to take the slasher movie—or at least the bones of the slasher movie—to a bold new time and place.
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