The summer camp horror movie has been alive and well since the early 1980s, when Sean S. Cunningham's 'Friday the 13th' spawned a dozen films in a franchise spanning three decades. There are plenty of other examples of the subgenre; its hard to go past the jaw-droppingly shocking ending of 'Sleepaway Camp' and the terrifyingly gory bedlam of Tony Maylam's 'The Burning'. Leigh Janiak crafts a homage to sun-soaked fun, treasured childhood memories and very unpleasant events with 'Fear Street Part Two: 1978'.
In 'Fear Street Part One: 1994', we were introduced to the twin towns of Sunnyvale and Shadyside, with fates that mirror their names. Shadyside was the site of the lynching of witch named Sarah Fier several hundred years ago; it's been cursed ever since. Shadysiders have a penchant for going on inexplicable murderous sprees. The lives of those who live in the town spiral downwards, dreams and aspirations follow that same disappointing trajectory.
Janiak's first film was about how the curse impacts four friends in 1994 - Deena (Kiana Madeira), Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), Kathy and Simon - and Deena's younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr). Spoiler alert: By the end of the story, Deena and Josh contact a woman (Gillian Jacobs) - the lone survivor of a previous Shadyside massacre - for help. The second film is this woman's story.
In 1978, Shadysiders and Sunnyvalers are summering at Camp Nightwing, having fun and grappling with their towns' simmering rivalries in equal measure. Rebellious Ziggy (Sadie Sink, Netflix's 'Stranger Things') is harassed by a gang of Sunnyvale teens who think she's an oddball and label her a witch. Her older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) is dismissed by Ziggy as trying too hard to be "Miss Perfect"; their relationship has been tense ever since a family crisis some years ago. In the meantime, Cindy is taking care of her duties as camp counselor and hanging out with her boyfriend Tommy (McCabe Slye). Cindy's estranged friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins, 'Ladyworld', 'Brigsby Bear', the standout actor of the series so far) and Nick (Ted Sutherland), a Sunnyvaler from a prominent family who has a crush on Ziggy, are the other key characters.
Even as everyone at the camp prepares for the grand finale - the Colour War between the two towns - an unprovoked attack on Tommy by Nightwing's resident Nurse Lane puts Cindy and the others on edge. As they attempt to investigate what caused the attack, they stumble upon the secret of Sarah Fier's curse - a secret that goes all the way back to 1666.
Janiak's second instalment begins with a degree of predictability; it practically revels in it. Most of the events in 'Fear Street Part Two: 1978' follow a straightforward path: a bunch of teenagers in close proximity in a desolate place, a manic killer on the loose. The tension is no less nerve-wracking for it. As the killer picks off teens one by one you're on edge, waiting for where the next grisly blow will fall. Tons of youngsters are horrifically murdered for indulging in premarital sex, smoking a little reefer and drinking cheap beer. Gradually, things become a little more surprising.
While 'Fear Street Party One: 1994' had flashes of intense violence that felt as if someone spliced 10 seconds of 'Intruder' into 'Empire Records', the second part is far more mean-spirited and bloodier. Think 'Cannibal Holocaust' meets 'The Goonies'.
This isn't a deconstruction or parody, like 'Final Girls' or 'The Babysitter'. While 'Fear Street Party One: 1994' had flashes of intense violence that felt as if someone spliced 10 seconds of 'Intruder' into 'Empire Records', the second part is far more mean-spirited and bloodier. Think 'Cannibal Holocaust' meets 'The Goonies'. The camera lingers on axe attacks and the subsequent human wreckage of the young victims, and the direction by Leigh Janiak feels defter, too. Maybe it's because she's less bogged down with setting up the mythology of the trilogy or just having more fun with this particular slasher subgenre and time period, as opposed to the 'Scream'-lite hip aesthetic of the 90s slasher boom.
Some theme music along the lines of the old 'Friday the 13th' strings would have added a ton of atmosphere, but at least the absolutely breakneck, unwieldy musical soundtrack chaos of the first film is slightly less noticeable in this second part. The annoying thing about the use of songs in 'Fear Street' series is that they are often diegetic (being played within the universe of the film). So having their volumes fluctuating up and down within the same setting to accommodate the action, as if they were part of a soundtrack, sometimes breaks the immersion of the movie. It also makes me wonder: what awesome tunes from the 17th century are queued up for 'Fear Street Part Three: 1666'? Probably 'Go Tell It on the Mountain', 'The Farmer in the Dell' - all the ye olde hits.
Sink, Sutherland, Rudd and the rest of the cast turn in compelling performances, especially Ryan Simpkins, whose Alice has a particularly punk-ish, unsettling presence. The chemistry between the actors is very effective - it was nice to see people who actually cared and grieved for one another, instead of moving past their friends' deaths with the alarmingly quickness of the 90s teens in the previous film.
As we continue travelling backwards in time to witness the secret origin of Sarah Fier, 'Fear Street Part Two: 1978' does an effective job of colouring in the myth and building the world of Shadyside. The first film barely held my interest but, surprisingly, I'm now looking forward to 'Fear Street Part Three: 1666' and the conclusion of this Netflix trilogy.