Written by: Zak Olkewicz and Leigh Janiak (screenplay, story), Phil Graziadei (story), R.L. Stine (books)
Directed by: Leigh Janiak
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Ashley Zukerman, and Gillian Jacobs
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
End the curse.
The decision to produce a Fear Street trilogy and release it over the course of three weeks has been like watching a franchise unfold at warp speed. Typically, it takes years—if not decades—for a series to sprawl into a dense, sometimes unwieldy mythology that turns everything on its head. Once upon a time, Jason Voorhees was a dead kid who inspired his mother’s murder spree; 20 years later, he eventually blasted off to space to continue his own carnage centuries into the future. Believe it or not, Leigh Janiak has similar—if not slightly more restrained—designs with Fear Street, a multi-generational triptych of terror that’s already explored its first layer of backstory with its first sequel/prequel. Now, with Fear Street 1666, it dives all the way back, fully illuminating its mystery with another prequel that once again allows Janiak to luxuriate in the story’s lore in a manner that’s rare for this genre. It’s nothing if not ambitious, and, even if it doesn’t all completely work, there’s something to be said about its insistence on going big and betting on itself. Fear Street 1666 continues that trend in a big way by eventually tying together the trilogy’s various threads for a satisfying climax once it dispenses with its backstory business.
It begins there, with Deena (Kiana Madeira) inhabiting the body of Sarah Fier in order to gain insight to her 17th century life. A Puritan girl living in the Union settlement that preceded present day Shadyside and Sunnyvale, Sarah is engaged in a forbidden relationship with the pastor’s daughter (Olivia Scott Welch), making the couple prime suspects when the town blames witchcraft for its brewing troubles. Their thirst for justice becomes more urgent after the pastor slays an entire congregation of children, forcing Sarah to also navigate her complicated relationship with the highly respected Solomon Goode (Ashley Zuckerman), who offers both salvation and damnation as the story finally unravels the truth surrounding the town’s curse.
Once again, Fear Street 1666 shows this trilogy’s willingness to fully invest in its stories and characters. Where most horror franchises would be content to treat this additional layer of backstory as a brief, expository flashback, this one dedicates nearly half of its final entry to turning its own mythology on its head. We learn—quite predictably, granted—that Sarah Fier was less a witch and more a victim of the same regressive Puritan morality that plagued the actual Salem Witch Trials. It’s all very YA Crucible, as Janiak and company eschew the slasher movie angle altogether, offering up only the gory (but quite unsettling) aftermath of the pastor’s massacre and largely allowing the horror elements to linger at the margins.
From a story standpoint, the flashback’s revelations are hardly earth-shattering for anyone who was even halfway paying attention in high school English class. It will come as no surprise to learn that women and witchcraft become scapegoats for the true evil lurking within the community: the paranoia and distrust among neighbors and their desperate attempts at seizing power. However, Janiak makes the interesting choice of having the actors from the previous films inhabit the roles of the Puritans, a conceit that unites past horrors to present horrors. It might be a touch on the nose, but it firmly establishes that Shadyside’s “curse” has tended to afflict its powerless outcasts, who have been helpless in confronting its powerful elites, who have been protected by the ritual blood sacrifices of each generation. The script often wears its heart on its sleeve in this respect, with characters making explicit speeches that hammer home the trilogy’s preoccupation with oppressed people thwarting corrupt power structures.
This notion only becomes more explicit when the finale returns to 1994 (complete with a Fear Street: 1994 Part 2 title card!) and allows the present-day characters to seek justice for the past three centuries. It’s a welcome turn of events, if only because it recaptures the vibes of the trilogy’s strongest film, all while giving Gillian Jacobs more to do besides narrate. We in the business call this a “win-win” because I think every movie should somehow involve Gillian Jacobs battling slasher movie ghouls in a mall. The all-out mayhem of the finale—which finds all of the slashers returning for a battle royal—feels like a victory lap that gives each character one more time to shine as blood continues to spill. In keeping with the franchise’s approach, this climax is given ample time to breathe, effectively taking up most of the film’s runtime instead of feeling like an obligatory resolution. They even pay off Darrell Britt-Gibson’s appearance in the first film by letting him in on the action, giving the finale more personality and humor as it recaptures the original film’s spirited sense of fun.
Your mileage will obviously vary in this respect and will depend heavily on how you felt about Fear Street 1994. Since it was far and away my favorite of the bunch, I was more than eager to return to this era and set of characters, not to mention all of the neon and 90s alt-rock tracks. Okay, maybe I was most excited by all the neon and 90s alt-rock tracks. Just as I was easily swayed by the colorful Fear Street covers at the Scholastic Book Fair, I remain firmly in the bag for horror movies that have a certain aesthetic—let’s call it “garish Halloween”—and the 1994 segments are unrepentantly awash in it. Between its grab bag of ghouls, candy-colored locations, and some actual Halloween trimming, 1994 just feels like a cinematic trick-or-treat, so the other entries were almost doomed to feel a little lesser in my eyes.
But they’re not that much lesser, and most of my qualms amount to nitpicks anyway. Despite the finale running longer than the other two, it still feels like it’s missing a little something here or there. For example, when the characters trick the slashers into fighting each other, the film doesn’t treat us to an all-out brawl, instead skipping to the bloody aftermath. Even if it wasn’t an advertised bout like Freddy vs. Jason, it still would have been nice to see more than a tease for this. Likewise, it’s a little disappointing that the 1666 stretch of the film drops the slasher movie approach because it would have been uncharted territory for the genre (oddly enough—considering how slasher morality and Puritan values often align, it’s surprising nobody’s intertwined the two).
Even this nitpick is just me getting the wrong idea and having the wrong expectations, plus can I really be that mad that a sequel decided not to do the same old thing? How many horror franchises pivot from homaging 90s and camp slashers to evoking folk horror? Not enough, and that Fear Street does it while weaving a coherent, topical story about upending oppressive power structures and featuring a diverse cast ultimately makes this trilogy a triumph of ambition. Janiak and crew have done something remarkable in taking a beloved property and doing their own bold thing with it without completely losing its spirit. A mid-credits tease suggests we’ll be seeing more, but I hope they at least have the good sense to leave this particular set of characters and their mythos alone. I know it’s practically genre tradition, but every series doesn’t need to labor on past its breaking point, so let’s spare this iteration of Fear Street from that part of the franchise arc.
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