For the second time this July, we’re back in Shadyside, the town that just cannot take a break from its homicidal shenanigans. This is Fear Street Part II: 1978, and it functions as both a continuation of the narrative from the 1994 edition and a gruesome summer camp slasher in its own right. If Fear Street: 1994 was a play on Scream, Fear Street: 1978 is Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp all the way. It amps up the gore, the teen sex, the tension, and the needle drops (oh, the needle drops) in what is an unquestionably entertaining middle outing of a trilogy careening towards its conclusion.
As Deena and Josh seek the help of C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) to save a possessed Sam from the clutches of the witch, she recounts her own nightmarish experience at Camp Nightwing, where an axe murderer on a killing spree took out half the camp, including her sister. Most of the action takes place in 1978, on the day leading up to the attack in what is a very Wet Hot American Summer atmosphere. Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink) isn’t exactly having the best time of it: her somewhat less than sunny disposition combines with the bullying behavior of the Sunnyvale girls to make for a particularly explosive situation. Meanwhile, her preppy older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd), determined to escape the Shadyside deadbeat curse, is focused entirely on her counselor responsibilities, planning the annual Color War, and desperately trying to stop her fellow counselors from constantly horning up the place. But their priorities will change drastically when resident witch Sarah Fier is introduced to the mix.
Here, then, we have the classic summer camp slasher, made all the more tense and ominous by the fact that we already know how it ends. The characters careen towards an inevitable, tragic conclusion, fated to die simply because they are from Shadyside. The curse of the witch casts a shadow over the lives of them all. But knowing that the ultimate destiny of Camp Nightwing is to go down in history as the site of one of Shadyside’s most notorious murder sprees takes away none of its urgency — there are plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Summer camp movies normally have a light, almost breezy tone, even when they end in tragedy. A bunch of horny teens are away from home, trapped in the woods with a bunch of other horny teens: what more would you expect than for them to be utterly drunk with the heady possibilities of freedom? But there’s a darkness that hangs over the heads of the Shadyside campers and counselors in Fear Street: 1978, an indescribable burden of trauma that they all carry with them. If there’s a weakness to this installment of Fear Street, it’s that this darkness is a little too overt, the Shadysiders perhaps too self-aware of their cursed upbringing, and the Sunnyvalers over-the-top in their cruelty to underprivileged neighbors. It feels as though it’s laid on pretty thick, but then again, if it serves to highlight the utter contempt of a wealthy community that has seemingly offered Shadyside up as a sacrificial lamb for their own prosperity, the point is well-taken.
What works best of all in Fear Street: 1978 is that even though we know that the odds of most of our protagonists making it through the night aren’t exactly promising, the film still devotes a lot of energy to developing the relationships between the various characters. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in the fractured sisterly bond between Cindy and Ziggy, or the uneasy, borderline hostile between Cindy and her former best friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins), or the awkward, burgeoning romance between Ziggy and Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland), camp counselor and future Sunnyvale sheriff. It seems sort of obvious that in a good slasher movie, you should sort of care if the characters live or die, but that surprisingly isn’t the case in a lot of them. It is, however, true of the counselors and campers in Fear Street Part II: 1978, who win the audience over almost immediately.
The second installment of Fear Street skillfully picks up where the first left off, using the throughline of the Sarah Fier curse as a natural continuation of the overarching story while still managing to do its own thing. It features a cast full of engaging characters that you can’t help but root for, creating genuine stakes that are especially impressive considering that the audience mostly knows how this will play out. Fear Street cleverly binds the films together by emphasizing a shared sense of trauma rather than any specific character. Rather than losing steam as the part of the narrative designed to connect the introduction and the conclusion, it manages to ramp up the tension, leaving us at a fever pitch as we head into the final film in the series.