The new Fear Street film trilogy from Netflix (set in 1994, 1978, and 1666, respectively) may just be one of their most pleasant surprises of the summer. Loosely based on the Fear Street book series by RL Stine and considerably more grisly than his flagship Goosebumps, this series of films takes on a centuries-long odyssey of the evil plaguing the small town of Shadyside. A retro pastiche of self-aware 90s slashers, Fear Street treads familiar territory for horror fans while still providing a fresh perspective that energizes the material.
Shadyside is the sort of town where bad things always seem to happen, and its inhabitants are more or less resigned to the sporadic outbreaks of murders that just don’t make sense. There are rumors of a witch’s curse dating back to the founding of the town, anecdotes and newspaper clippings that are traded over AOL chat rooms by loners like Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), who operates as our resident murder expert (every self-respecting 90s slasher has to have one.) None of this concerns his sister Deena (Kiana Madeira), though, as she’s reeling from a recent breakup and is more focused on one last-ditch effort to reconnect with Sam (Olivia Welch.) But when Sam accidentally disturbs the grave of the witch, she becomes the target of an unholy assault from the resurrected corpses of all of Fear Street’s most notorious murderers.
Fear Street takes a lot of its cues from classic 90s horror: the opening scene featuring a cameo from Maya Hawke (arguably the film’s biggest name) may not be quite as iconic as Drew Barrymore’s in Scream, but it’s certainly a nod to it. There’s also good-natured humor to the proceedings that feels like an ode to teen slashers made for a generation of kids who grew up in the 90s renting horror from the local video store.
They’re all terrified, of course, but they’re never reduced to outright hysterics — there’s no Judith Dea in Night of the Living Dead equivalent here. These are creative, inventive, resourceful teens who have been around the block and know their horror tropes; they were never going to meet their fate lying down. Despite its teen-friendly approach, however, it has a few delightfully gruesome set pieces that serve as a reminder that although RL Stine is most famous for kiddie horror, he can go dark when he needs to.
Fear Street has an appealingly expansive quality, full of untold horror stories existing perpetually off-screen. The original series was an anthology, with different nightmare scenarios all taking place within a sort of localized hub for pure evil: Fear Street in the town of Shadyside. This structure lends itself to the approach that Netflix has taken, with three distinct stories linked together by a common source of evil. It allows Fear Street to expand upon its own storyline in the way that traditional horror sequels do. However, since it’s planned ahead of time, can it be done with much more intentionality. This gives Fear Street a sense of depth that’s relatively uncommon in slasher films, knowing that there’s a larger mythos at play behind the often brutally violent goings-on in Shadyside.
This is important because it makes the horror more dynamic and lets Fear Street sneakily introduce political commentary about class into the conversation. Shadyside is a community perpetually devastated by violence and tragedy, cutting short the lives of many promising young residents. The neighboring town of Sunnyvale, which is by comparison affluent and crime-free, is more than willing to accept the narrative that Shadyside is dangerous simply because the people of Shadyside make it so. But it’s clear throughout Shadyside that there’s something much larger at play. The students of Shadyside have the odds stacked against them and face more significant challenges not because of who they are as individuals but because of where they’re from.
Fear Street Part I: 1994 is a clever and engaging introduction to the planned trilogy, teeing up a villain and overarching narrative with the kind of world-building that will likely pay dividends down the line. But more than anything else, it’s pure fun. Deena and her group of friends are all well-developed in a way that makes you immediately invested in their fate. The legend of the witch is traditional and familiar enough, but with a few touches that give it new life. And that’s the most successful aspect of Fear Street so far: it is clearly influenced by horror staples but is fresh enough that it never feels like a lazy imitation of a superior film. Fear Street borrows, but with panache, creating an energy that is all its own.