2021 | R | starring Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Olivia Scott Welch, Gillian Jacobs, Ashley Zuckerman, Jordana Spiro, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd | directed by Leigh Janiak | 5 hrs 30 mins |
Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak adapts the R. L. Stine young-adult horror series “Fear Street” into a gleefully gory, sprawling epic trilogy of films that shifts through decades and horror genres with mixed results. The series is completely campy, absurd to the point of really suspending disbelief and more often cribs from other works as an homage than being it’s own thing, but taken as an homage, the project has it’s fun moments.
The biggest reason that Fear Street works when it leaps into realms of idiocy is that it does a good job of building it’s world up front. In the state of Ohio, two towns sit across the tracks from each other – Shadyside, the more impoverished black sheep community, and Sunnydale, the wealthier, privileged neighboring town. A rivalry between the two spans from the high school football teams to the upper ranks of law enforcement. Shadyside is cursed with a history of serial killers that spans back decades and in 1994 another strikes again, a skull mask figure who butchers several teenagers in a mall. Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores) are Shadysiders who get caught up in the town mystery when they venture to Sunnydale for a memorial service for one of the kids and Deena reunites with her ex, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), now dating a Sunnydale football player. A prank between the two sides accidently unleashes the spirit of Sarah Fier, a witch who was hung on Shadyside grounds 300 years before and cursed the town, possessing an army of monsters through the ages to come after those that disturb her rest. While facing off against the undead slasher horde, the high schoolers learn they can’t stop them until they undo the curse and seek the help of Sarah Fier’s lone survivor, Berman (Gillian Jacobs), who back in 1978 survived an attack of the witch’s horde at the Nightwing summer camp.
I’m reminded of the little-seen Scream TV series (which Janiak directed 2 episodes of), which accurately predicted it’s own demise vs. it’s namesake film’s success. To paraphrase,: slasher movies burn bright and quick, but to have the staying power of a series you need gothic horror like The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. For it’s many, many, many, many flaws, Fear Street is, if nothing else, a monument to Janiak’s love of slasher movies. She appears to deeply know the genre and in this film series attempts to bridge the gap between them, coming up with a shaky premise to sustain a slasher movie over several movies with a supernatural curse. The series moves from experiment to execution with each film.
Part 1: 1994 is a full throated homage to Scream and the pop-horror it created in the 90s with a trademark opening murder and a fun soundtrack of on-the-nose 90s music. In true pop horror fashion, 1994 emphasizes fun, gore and style over tension and horror. It’s visually gorgeous, a vibrant collage of blues and reds and it is quickly paced and edited with snap and energy. It’s the best – and silliest – of the lot. Part 2: 1978 flashes back to a 70s era Friday the 13th film with a dash of sex, gore and social ostracism at a summer camp with an axe wielding killer. Part 3: 1666 flashes back all the way to pilgrim settlers of the new world where a village starts to face bad luck – poison well water – and a priest that goes insane and seeks town women they can pin scandal on and label a witch. It’s here where Janiak switches to a grittier, more indie look of a period gothic horror film. While you can probably flaw each one of these, Janiak slipping into the skin of all 3 styles in one movie series is accomplished.
1994 is almost entirely self contained. It introduces the story, explains the witch, the rules of the curse AND figures out how to functionally defeat her. It’s here where going backwards in time seems like the exact opposite of what the story needs to do. Instead, introduce your witch and build up to the modern day where people fight to stop it in every decade. Janiak has a few twists up her sleeve that makes the structure work, specifically in 1666 which by that point doesn’t have enough content to fill an entire film and switches eras back to our critical path story. 1978 is probably the slowest and hardest to swallow, because our entry point into it is via the story of the massacre’s survivor. Now we know that the main character is going to survive the movie does it’s best to try to hide which one of the Berman sisters is our narrator: rebellious “creepy Shadyside” girl Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink) or straight-laced girl trying to break out of the town, Cindy (Emily Rudd). You’ll see it coming a mile away. The movie also puts Cindy and some of it’s characters in a holding pattern, trapping them in an underground labyrinth and out of the action for half of the movie.
The grand finale of 1666 is insane and a lot of fun. It’s not as insane as the finale of 1994 – an absolutely idiotic ending that finds our kids trying to break the curse by ODing on drugs and restarting their hearts with Epi-Pens we’re supposed to think have adrenaline in them. Two of the stand out characters of the series are 1994’s Kate and Simon (Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger), two Shadyside druggies and the subject of the series’ biggest shocks. The film has a lot of fun with wordplay too. From it’s town names, to names of the characters (Sarah Fier, get it) the writing is so curiously strong in parts. That all of this folds together in something that makes sense is also impressive.
Fears Street is a Netflix product through-and-through. Plucking most of it’s cast from Netflix shows – lead Kiana Madeira from Trinkets and Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink from Stranger Things. It is very much a post-Stranger Things work, like that show, it works more as a nostalgic cheesy homage to horror gone by than it does as an original slasher film in it’s own right. I nit-picked it to death and the opportunity is there, but Janiak plucks every tool in her cinematic tookbox to make it fast and fun and it isn’t always that good, but it is when it really needs to be.