Fear Street 1978 pays homage & improves on horror movies of the past

Fear Street Part 2: 1978

Though still plagued by problems, this second Fear Street movie is more thoughtful than its predecessor.

Much like the Backstreet Boys or white nationalism in American politics, the Fear Street movies are technically “back” even though they never had a chance to leave. Fear Street Part 2: 1978 is the second in a trilogy of Fear Street films being released weekly on Netflix. While its predecessor was a pastiche of both Amblin and Kevin Williamson horror, this next entry is directly inspired by slasher movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The summer camp setting alone makes it so clear that the project is paying tribute to Friday the 13th that one may be surprised Kevin Bacon doesn’t show up for a quick cameo.

Fear Street Part 2: 1978 begins with the protagonists of the preceding movie cornering C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) on how she survived an encounter with the witch years prior. From there, Berman tells a story about how her summertime experience at Camp Nightwing was plagued by a murder spree. All of that killing was the result of a witch named Sarah Fier, who terrorizes the town of Shadyside and all its residents.

Even before all that blood was spilled, though, tension was already high at Camp Nightwing, especially between sisters Cindy (Emily Rudd) and Ziggy (Sadie Sink). Cindy is a goody-two-shoes who follows every rule in hopes of gaining an escape route from Shadyside. Ziggy, on the other hand, just causes mayhem wherever she goes. The duo has a longstanding animosity that used to be their biggest problem, until Fier possessed one of the camp counselors and had them go on a murderous rampage. Now, it’s a race for survival, though Cindy and fellow counselor Alice (Ryan Simpkins) may have found a helpful item after stumbling onto Fier’s hideout.

So far, the biggest standout element of the two Fear Street movies is that they’re creating faithful homages to classic horror genres while emphasizing the connections between the female characters. Thanks to the “final girl” archetype, horror has always had a commendably heavy presence of women protagonists. However, it’s been rare to see classic horror fare where there are multiple fleshed-out women characters, let alone see them getting along. If two gals do cross paths in these films (like in most genres), they’ll usually just act hostile to each other.

Fear Street Part 2: 1978 (Netflix)

Not so in these Fear Street titles, which provide a welcome injection of female camaraderie into familiar horror movie domains. Such a rapport doesn’t eschew complicated instances of conflict between the characters, but also doesn’t assume all women are instantly at each other’s throats. Whereas Fear Street: 1994 was about exploring two women in a romantic relationship, Fear Street Part Two: 1978 is fixated on a messy sister bond. Emphasizing nuance in these tragically underexplored dynamics informs the most distinctive details of the individual Fear Street movies.

This installment also works a bit harder to subvert certain stereotypes of the movies it’s paying tribute to, as compared to its predecessor. For instance, the sexually active Alice doesn’t immediately die once the killer grabs an ax and starts chopping. Instead, she’s allowed to become a more developed character, complete with a backstory to explain how she’s coped with growing up in Shadyside. It’s a background that’s on the generic side, but at least she’s defined by more than promiscuity. 

Meanwhile, the eventual killer’s slaughtering of younger campers is primarily played off-screen. The sound of grisly demises plays against striking wide shots as director Leigh Janiak thoughtfully uses vacant space in the frame to emphasize the tragedy of these deaths. That’s a sharp contrast to the death scenes in the original Friday the 13th, which placed the viewer in the point-of-view of the killer as she stalked her prey. While classic campground slasher movies tried to get moviegoers into the mindset of the killer, Fear Street Part 2: 1978 wants us to empathize with the killed. 

Incorporating these thoughtful touches helps to ensure that Fear Street Part 2: 1978 feels like more than just a Greatest Hits compilation of classic horror movies. That’s an improvement on its predecessor, but this follow-up still suffers from some of Fear Street 1994’s faults. For one thing, Janiak and Zak Olkewicz’s screenplay is still too in love with overdosing the audience with period-era needle drops. We get three of them within a five-minute span early on in the runtime! Ease up on the tunes! The writing is also too enamored with the mythology of Sarah Fier for its own good. The more you explain what’s supposed to be scary, the less scary it gets. 

So far, the biggest standout element of the two Fear Street movies is that they’re creating faithful homages to classic horror genres while emphasizing the connections between the female characters.

Whenever backstory takes center stage, the film gets way less engaging. An early scene where Cindy, Alice, and two other counselors parse through and extrapolate the meaning behind objects belonging to Fier, for example, would be a moment where you dash to the bathroom if this was a theatrical feature. Plus, clumsy moments that try to deliver cutesy tie-ins into the preceding movies (particularly the origin for one of 1994’s monsters) can be seen coming a mile away, and distract from the story at hand. 

A framing device directly continuing the plot of Deena (Kiana Madeira) from Fear Street 1994 is understandable, given the cliffhanger ending of that earlier film. However, the presence of these elements feels superfluous. Though always intended to be part of a larger story, in execution Fear Street Part Two 1978 feels like a standalone horror movie with a hastily added prologue and epilogue to connect it to Fear Street 1994.

This is particularly true in the final moments of 1978, as the screenplay barrels through so many developments for Deena and company without giving any of them a moment to breathe. It’s also a pity that a genuinely fun cliffhanger ending that doesn’t hold the audience’s hand gets undercut immediately by the trailer for the next installment, Fear Street 1666. C’mon, even the Marvel movies wait until midway through the credits to show scenes from an upcoming feature!

Once again, a Fear Street movie, like so many other modern franchise features, undercuts itself by getting lost in all the lore and trying to tie itself up to other movies. Luckily, most of Fear Street Part 2: 1978 is concerned with just being a revised take on classic slasher movies of years past. When it’s in that mode, the thoughtful direction and committed performances (Rudd and Sink are especially compelling) make it a solid horror treat. If Fear Street 1666 continues the upward quality trajectory of this trilogy, this saga may just go out on a high note.

Fear Street Part 2: 1978 premieres on Netflix July 9th.

Fear Street Part 2: 1978 Trailer:

Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman (she/her) is a life-long movie fan whose byline has appeared in outlets like Polygon, Consequence, ScarleTeen, Collider, Fangoria, Looper, and, of course, The Spool. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Lisa adores pugs, showtunes, the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and any songs by Carly Rae Jepsen.

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