I always suspected that R.L. Stine was a pseudonym for a thousand monkeys manacled together in an underground bunker somewhere, tapping away at a thousand typewriters, trained by Simon & Schuster to pump out light fiction for pre-teens. '90s urchins grew up with Stine's endless 'Goosebumps' series, but the horror icon also had a grimmer franchise, 'Fear Street', targeted at kids keen to read about people being murdered in comically 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.
Dubbed "Killer Capital USA" by the media, the town of Shadyside, Ohio, has to deal with mass murderers and killing sprees every couple of years. Meanwhile, sister city Sunnyvale is comparatively chilled out. Shadyside high school student Deena (Kiana Madeira) is bruised from a breakup, while her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr) retreats to the safety of AOL chatrooms, and her chums Simon (Fred Hechinger, 'Vox Lux', 'Eighth Grade') and Kate (Julia Rehwald) are slinging illegal prescription drugs. Making things even more complicated, Deena's former girlfriend Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch) is involved in a car accident that disturbs the spirit of the legendary Fier Witch, causing the death toll to skyrocket. Deena and her gang of outsiders must work together to break the witch's curse while avoiding the undead slasher movie archetypes chasing them.
With an atmosphere and plot that seems intended to remind audiences of 'Stranger Things', the screenwriters sprinkle on some commentary on class and social status, as well as a queer romance. It's all a little muddled, with a lot of time devoted to setting up the rest of the trilogy. The weight of this preamble hobbles the movie, kicking the legs out from under the final act just as the film becomes 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 groovy neon lighting, slick 90s fashions, interesting locations and a variety of wet crunching noises to accompany the surprising amounts of splatter punctuating the kills. However, this creates its own problems with the overall tone of the film.
The silliness of the violence in the 'Fear Street' books served to cushion the emotional impact on kids. Half of what made Stine's books (whether they be 'Fear Street' or 'Goosebumps') so interesting was the ghoulish cover art. 'Monster Blood', 'Barking Ghost', 'Welcome to Dead House', 'The Stepsister'... it was gnarly but goofy stuff.
The production values are slick, with groovy neon lighting, slick 90s fashions, interesting locations and a variety of wet crunching noises to accompany the surprising amounts of splatter punctuating the 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 its hard to tell 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".
The obtrusive score and lazy use of 90s songs don't help - 'Fear Street Part One: 1994' uses something over half a dozen 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. Here, though, they are cheat codes to earn the audience's buy-in. Music that should be used to convey added layers of emotional information is 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 a dying marriage. 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, due to Netflix's three-week release gambit, at least we won't have to wait too long to find out.