For almost as long as there have been horror films, there have been horror franchises. In the 1930s, audiences went crazy for ghouls like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and so on. Over the next few decades, studios like Universal juiced every last bit of profitability out of these creatures while looking for the next commercially viable creeper. Now Netflix and director Leigh Janiak have had a crack at reimagining R.L. Stine's 'Fear Street' books as a trilogy of films, released over three weeks, which reaches its conclusion with 'Fear Street Part Three: 1666'.
'Fear Street Part Two: 1978 ended on a cliffhanger, where it looked like 90s teen Deena (Kiana Madeira) had time-travelled into the body of feared 1666 witch Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel), 'Quantum Leap'-style. That's not quite what happens, but Deena does get to experience the truth of Sarah's story, before returning to the noughties and the final confrontation between good and evil.
Not only does Madeira play Sarah in 1666, but Olivia Scott Welch reappears playing Hannah Miller. She's the daughter of Pastor Cyrus Miller and another resident of Union, the original settlement that became Sunnyvale and Shadyside. The two engage in a secret affair, which then inspires a witch hunt. The rest of the cast from the previous two films also return to join in this communal conflict as ancestral versions of their characters.
Since 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' and 'Fear Street Part Two: 1978' were, respectively, homages to the self-aware slashers like 'Scream' and campfire slashers like 'Friday the 13th', you might have expected Janiak to pull from pastoral horror such as Robert Eggers' 'The Witch', Michael Reeves' 'Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General' or Thomas Clay's 'Fanny Lye Deliver'd'. But, as it turns out, the 1666 setting is simply used as an extended flashback.
After an hour, the film cuts to a new title card: 'Fear Street Part Four: 1994: Part 2', those annoying needle drops return, and the Offspring's 'Come Out and Play' blows your eardrums out. It's here that the film pulls from 'Freddy vs Jason' and 'The Monster Squad', as the gang takes on half a dozen murderous revenants in a frantic UV-lit brawl at the Shadyside Mall. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gillian Jacobs (the trilogy's biggest name) has a lot more to do this time around, while Darrell Britt-Gibson (as mall janitor Martin) also graduates to main character status, to good comic effect.
Soundtrack aside, it's a relief to be back in the noughties because the 17th-century setting draws attention to the budgetary limitations that Janiak had to work with. The costumes, wigs, fake beards and sets (spooky underground cavern aside), shonky accents (which range from New England to Irish), anachronistic language and ropy acting is like something you might see on the teen-orientated The CW network.
'Fear Street Part Three: 1666' demonstrates how easily women can be harmed by men telling lies.
However, this 1666 portion does give Kiana Madeira a meatier role to play as Sarah Fier. Ashley Zukerman (as town cop Nick Goode and his ancestor Solomon) also gets more to do and he's extremely effective in the role - his "reunion" with Jacobs' character is one of several highlights. Most importantly, the big plot twist is a genuinely surprising one that recontextualises the entire series in an interesting way and brings the message into focus.
Janiak has explored some interesting themes throughout the trilogy. Real people were executed in Salem when religious hysteria reached a dangerous zenith. None were in league with Satan, or had supernatural powers that allowed them to control or injure others. Instead, they were victims of mob mentality and deeply-rooted superstition.
'Fear Street Part Three: 1666' demonstrates how easily women can be harmed by men telling lies, how a man could fabricate an entire story about a woman (for example, laying with the devil) because she rejected him, and men in power would passively go along with the deceit just to appease their own preconceived gender biases.
As a whole, the 'Fear Street' trilogy was an ambitious undertaking from Janiak that seemed to struggle against the Netflix model and budgetary constraints. On the surface, each instalment seemed to be crafted as a self-contained tale, but the reality was something like a TV miniseries, with a serialised story that was broken into episodes. It even references the Marvel model of filmmaking, with each movie featuring a mid-credits stinger that flowed into the next one.
'Fear Street' was an intriguing experiment in blending both television and cinematic formats, deeply flawed as a horror trilogy and occasionally quite fun.