I always assumed that R.L. Stine was a pseudonym for a dozen writers chained together in a basement somewhere, forced by a publishing company to churn out easily digestible works of fiction for pre-teens. '90s urchins grew up with Stine's 'Goosebumps', but the prolific horror author also had a less popular and much darker franchise: 'Fear Street', which was targeted towards kids who could tolerate reading about people being murdered in gruesome ways.
The now-defunct 20th Century Fox planned to adapt the books, but Disney mergers and COVID-19 crises caused that plan to fall through, and the distribution was renegotiated. The end result is 'Fear Street Part One: 1994', the first entry in a supernatural slasher saga being released by Netflix in three parts: 1994, 1978, and 1666 (evil ghouls get lazy between the years of '66 and '78).
Dubbed "Killer Capital USA" by the media, the town of Shadyside, Ohio, has to deal with mass murderers popping up every couple of years for a killing spree or two. Meanwhile, sister city Sunnyvale enjoys relative peace and prosperity. Shadyside high school student Deena (Kiana Madeira) is recovering from a breakup while her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr) retreats to the safety of AOL chatrooms, and her friends Simon (Fred Hechinger, 'Vox Lux', 'Eighth Grade') and Kate (Julia Rehwald) are dealing illegal prescription drugs. Deena's former girlfriend Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch) is involved in a car accident that disturbs the spirit of the legendary Fier Witch. As a result of this faux pas, the bodies begin to pile up. Deena and her gang of outsiders must work together to break the witch's curse while avoiding the undead slasher movie archetypes pursuing them.
The plot is mostly boilerplate. It feels calibrated - vaguely but cynically - to capitalise on the popularity of Netflix's wistful Amblin imitation 'Stranger Things'. The screenwriters festoon the film with some commentary on class and social status, as well as a queer romance, but it's all a little muddled. There is a lot of place setting for the rest of the trilogy that takes place in the 1970s and the 1600s, filling in the events that led up to 1994. Some of these threads are woven in tidily, most of them are not. The weight of this setup hampers the movie, tripping up the final act even as the film becomes more enjoyable.
The cast is similarly so-so. Maya Hawke ('Human Capital') gets a compelling opening sequence, but it devolves from there. Kiana Madeira is tough, but never becomes likeable. Benjamin Flores Jr is the awkward, geeky character with the crush, but lacks much else in terms of characterisation. Fred Hechinger does his usual off-kilter Joaquin Phoenix-lite routine, and Julia Rehwald and Olivia Scott Welch exist simply to be chased by killers wearing burlap sacks and skull masks.
Fortunately, the production values are slick, with blown-out neon lighting, note-perfect 90s fashions, interesting locations and a variety of wet crunching noises to accompany the surprising amounts of splatter punctuating the more elaborate kills. However, this creates its own problems with the overall tone of the film.
The 'Fear Street' books are short, straightforward, and packed with teenage themes - but the offbeat zaniness of their violence served to lessen the emotional impact on kids, allowing the books to operate more like B-movies than serious drama. One glance at the covers and you immediately knew it was an R.L. Stine book and that you were in for a good time. In fact, half of what made his books (whether they be 'Fear Street' or 'Goosebumps') so interesting was the cover art. 'Monster Blood', 'Barking Ghost', 'Welcome to Dead House', 'The Stepsister'... it was gnarly stuff.
The production values are slick, with blown-out neon lighting, note-perfect 90s fashions, interesting locations and a variety of wet crunching noises to accompany the surprising amounts of splatter punctuating the more elaborate kills.
The big challenge in adapting 'Fear Street' for the screen was finding that fine balance between R-rated content and a PG aesthetic. It's here that 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' drops the ball, because I honestly have no idea what the target demo for this movie is - the plot and characters are skewed to younger teens along the lines of André Øvredal's 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark', but it's accompanied by some face-shredding hyper-violence that references brutal slashers like Scott Spiegel's 'Intruder'. As that quote from The Simpsons goes: "Too crazy for Boys Town, too much of a boy for Crazy Town".
What makes it a slog is the obtrusive score and lazy use of 90s songs - 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' uses something like seven or eight different songs, from Nine Inch Nails to Pixies, in the first twenty minutes alone. When needle drops have been curated carefully and deployed judiciously, they can enhance a film's atmosphere and its characters' unspoken feelings. Here, though, they are lazy ploys to earn the audience's buy-in. Music that should be used to convey added layers of environmental and emotional information is instead used simply for nostalgia appeal.
Leigh Janiak is the director and co-writer (along with Phil Graziadei) of this series, which is surprising because her previous horror film, 'Honeymoon', was so stark, simple, and supremely creepy - a metaphorical nightmare take on ailing relationships. The choppy quality of 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' made me appreciate Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's retro-flavoured 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown' even more, since it did a similar post-'Scream' horror meta-movie thing with ten times the style, inventiveness and small-town atmospherics.
As the beginning of an ambitious trilogy, 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' at least manages to lay all the groundwork. Whether the next two instalments evolve beyond "somewhat watchable" remains to be seen but, thanks to Netflix's three-week release gambit, we won't have to wait too long to find out.