For almost as long as there have been horror films, there have been horror franchises. The first explosion of horror sequels detonated in the 1930s when audiences went gaga for fiends like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and so on. Over the next few decades, studios (primarily Universal) wrung every last bit of profitability out of these creatures while looking for the next commercially viable ghoul or ghost or what-have-you. 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 terrific 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, in that she doesn't retain her 1994 consciousness in Sarah's body - instead, it's an efficient way for Deena to experience the truth of Sarah's story, before returning to the noughties and putting her newfound knowledge to good use.
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 a friendly neighbour of Sarah's in Union, the original settlement before it was divided into Sunnyvale and Shadyside. The two engage in a secret affair, which is exposed and inspires a witch hunt, proving that intolerance is as old as the hills. Janiak preaches hell as other people, augmenting the supernatural material with communal conflict. Not that she skimps on the traditional scare fare: there are images, like one involving a ravenous pig, that deposit themselves immediately into the nightmare bank.The rest of the cast from the previous two films also return as ancestral versions of their characters. This has a specific payoff for one of them and adds more shock value to the deaths of the others because they are played by familiar faces.
Since 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' and 'Fear Street Part Two: 1978' were, respectively, homages to the self-aware slashers of the 90s like 'Scream' and campfire slashers like 'Friday the 13th', you might have expected the final chapter to treat its 1666 period setting as an aesthetic template, pulling 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 strong comic effect.
Instead of transporting audiences to a bygone era that would look plenty frightening even without the paranormal activity that engulfs it, the 17th-century setting highlights the budgetary limitations that Janiak had to work with. The costumes, wigs, fake beards and sets (spooky underground cavern aside) are lacking. Not only that, but the 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.
Janiak played with some interesting themes throughout the trilogy. By making a queer woman of colour the main protagonist in 1994 and 1666, she reworked historical context into a fictional framework to make a timely statement on oppression and bigotry.
While this 1666 portion feels, for the most part, like a community theatre production of Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible', it does give Kiana Madeira a much more interesting 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 played with some interesting themes throughout the trilogy. By making a queer woman of colour the main protagonist in 1994 and 1666, she reworked historical context into a fictional framework to make a timely statement on oppression and bigotry.
Used as a starting point, the documented past can be a way to ground stories and give them an added illusion of authenticity. Real women (and a few men) were tortured and executed in Salem and the surrounding areas when religious hysteria reached a dangerous peak. 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.
If anything, 'Fear Street Part Three: 1666' demonstrates how easily innocent women can be harmed by men in power outright lying, how a man could fabricate an entire story about a woman (for example, laying with the devil) because she rejected him, and other men would actively go along with the deceit so they could 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, blood-soaked tale, but the reality was something like a TV miniseries, with an overarching, serialised story that was broken into distinct, episodic chapters. You might even say it drew upon the Marvel model of filmmaking, with each movie featuring a mid-credits stinger that flowed into the next one.
More than anything else, 'Fear Street' was an intriguing experiment in blending both television and cinematic formats. As a horror trilogy, it was deeply flawed and occasionally quite fun.