A lack of scares and too much vulgarity drag down the better parts of this inaugural Fear Street film.
It was a tragedy to see certain theatrical movies getting sent to streaming due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If its first part is any indication, though, the trilogy of Fear Street movies (which are being released weekly) has found a perfect home on Netflix. This inaugural installment has all the gore and language of an R-rated film, but the broad archetypes you’d find in a Disney Channel Original Movie. 12 to 14-year-olds who love TikTok are the primary demo here, but they’d never be able to see the movie alone in theaters. Now, that same target demo can rewatch it on Netflix endlessly.
For youngsters in that age range who have never seen Scream, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 will be a revelation. For the rest of us, there isn’t quite enough newness here to offset the extremely familiar drawbacks.
As the title implies, this kickoff Fear Street movie takes place in 1994 and is set in Shadyside, Ohio, a small town plagued by decades of gruesome murders. High schooler Deena (Kiana Madeira) is convinced she’s going to be stuck here forever, especially once her ex-girlfriend Samantha (Olivia Welch) moves away to rival town Sunnyville. However, after a tense confrontation with Samantha, Deena is stalked by a guy in a creepy skull mask. The same figure begins tormenting her friends, Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger).
If Deena’s younger brother and serial killer expert, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), is correct, then this gang of high schoolers isn’t being targeted by a disgruntled Sunnyville jock. These teens may have just found themselves intertwined in the machinations of a long-deceased witch who’s put a curse on Shadyside. This supernatural figure has claimed many lives in the past and now she’s aiming for Deena and friends.
Based on a series of books of the same name by R.L. Stine (though with ramped-up violence and profanity), Fear Street Part One: 1994 feels caught between two different horror movie influences. Centering the plot on a bunch of people too young to vote who have to save their small Northern American town from supernatural forces echoes all those 1980s Stephen King/Amblin properties pop culture has been fixated on for more than a decade.
However, the older ages of the characters and a slasher villain make it also feel like something that would have come out in the wake of Scream’s success in the late 1990s. Screenwriters Phil Graziadei and Leigh Janiak (the latter of whom also directs) even throw in their own homage to Scream’s doomed celebrity cameo opening sequence. Fear Street Part One: 1994 certainly knows about horror released late in the 20th century, but it never takes these influences in new directions.
Its hollow approach to vintage pop culture is epitomized by Josh’s recurring tic of reciting the Konami Code whenever he gets nervous around pretty ladies. This trait beats viewers over the head with the fact that Josh is a nerd while reminding us all of a famous element of vintage pop culture. How efficient. The 1990s needle drops, including a bizarrely short burst of the Nine Inch Nails tune “Closer,” are similarly too surface level to leave an impact. I’m sure some of these callbacks will be good for a nostalgia kick for some, but Fear Street relying on so many familiar details make it a hodgepodge of the past rather than even just a breezy homage.
The better parts come whenever Janiak and company incorporate some new details into the proceedings. Janiak and editor Rachel Katz have a clear sense of timing which informs the funniest moments of the film, and doesn’t just feel like a mimicry of something you’d find in a Wes Craven movie. Janiak handles the instances of dark comedy quite well, like her sense of restraint in a humorous moment where Kate informs two youngsters of the dire side effects that’ll occur if they eat the drugs they’re supposed to be packaging.
Humor in Fear Street Part 1: 1994 works better on a visual level than it does in the dialogue. The lines in this film are akin to what would have happened if Stifler and Deadpool teamed up to write a scary movie. Characters are constantly spouting vulgar expressions like comparing the side effects of a medicine to having sexual intercourse with a unicorn. Only a few of these witticisms make the mark, leaving much of 1994’s dialogue eyeroll-worthy attempts at conjuring up “edginess.”
Centering the plot on a bunch of people too young to vote who have to save their small town from supernatural forces echoes all those 1980s Stephen King/Amblin properties pop culture has been fixated on for more than a decade.
On the plus side of things, props to the movie for explicitly exploring a relationship that would have been treated as a punchline in either the 1980s or the 1990s. Deena and Samantha’s relationship as former romantic partners is treated with respectability and nuance, and Janiak’s work behind the camera ensures that the duo is treated as far more than just objects for the male gaze. Madeira and Welch’s performance also do a great job in their rapport together. The duo effectively sells the fraught nature of their character’s current dynamic while also showing flickers of why these two would be attracted to one another in the first place.
Unfortunately, one of the weaker parts of Fear Street Part 1: 1994 comes in one of the most important parts of any horror title: being scary. Janiak leans on too many fake-out jump scares in the first half of the story while the frights in the latter half are extremely derivative. The assorted henchmen the witch sends after the lead characters aren’t unnerving thanks to their respective designs cribbed from other horror movies. Only one particularly gnarly kill in the climax emerges as a cut above the rest, otherwise, bog-standard demises abound.
The fact that this occupies a larger trilogy also informs 1994’s underwhelming conclusion, which will only prove satisfying to those who loved the sudden “TO BE CONTINUED” text which closed out The Matrix Reloaded. Maybe the subsequent two entries in the Fear Street trilogy will build upon the good elements here in 1994 and retroactively improve on this installment. On its own merits, though, this first Fear Street movie needed to eschew nostalgia and more frequently embrace some actually chilling scares.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 premieres on Netflix July 2nd.