Fear Street Part 1: 1994 | All photos courtesy of Netflix
“Welcome to Fear Street, where your worst nightmares live and where the terror never ends.”
The literary horror world of R. L. Stine has seen a resurrection of book-to-screen studio adaptations in recent years. Decades after the super nostalgic 90s television series Goosebumps, based on Stine’s popular anthologies about teens finding themselves in spooky situations, the title was given a spin in 2015 with Jack Black playing the author himself. A lackluster 2018 sequel came and went, but what remains are plenty of horror fiction books to be discovered by a new generation, or rediscovered by those who grew up reading the horror author’s bone-chilling stories. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, Stine’s unmistakable pulpy book covers stood out on library shelves and were coveted on the pages of Scholastic Book Fair flyers. Among them, the young adult book series Fear Street, which began prior to Goosebumps and was geared towards older teens. Markedly more violent and adult, Fear Street operates on a loop of terror. Set in fictional Shadyside, the series follows the town’s sinister history through a nightmare 300 years in the making. Given the sprawling material and best-selling appetite for Stine horror, it comes to no surprise that Netflix is hitting the crest of this wave with a three-part film trilogy based on the series, and they’re off to a nostalgic start.
Fear Street 1994 (Part 1), directed by Leigh Janiak, evokes the peak 90s slasher horror that screams Scream. Wes Craven’s genre staple has a fun influence on Janiak’s choices, from the effective casting of Maya Hawke as Heather in the opening scene to employing the same film composer who chased Sidney and Ghostface through four installments. While Marco Beltrami’s creepy, brilliant score is often given center stage to play out in the Scream films, Fear Street tends to overpower his work with consecutive 90s rock song needle drops. Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Garbage, Pixies, the list goes on with rock hits by bands of the decade. Part 1 lays the setting of its era on thick, but in a rollicking way, tapping into a teenaged angst of trying to be edgy and cool. On a more emotionally engaging level, the kinships formed between characters give Fear Street something more to hold onto beyond the 90s horror vibes and the violent kills. The story follows a circle of teenage friends who accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have cursed their town for centuries. They soon discover these terrifying events may all be connected — and they may be the next targets.
Maya Hawke in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
The neon-lit Shadyside Mall opening sequence sets the tone for what’s to come — whispering threats, stylized sets, skull mask chases, and a haunted centuries-old grip on the town that drives its residents mad. Fear Street 1994 is less scary as it is one big twisted game leaning into R rated gore and witchcraft. The 90s feel like a classic way to start the trilogy, and in doing so, writer-director Leigh Janiak pays homage to the sweet spot of slasher horror through a contemporary lens. The references that make it onto the screen certainly feel like they’re coming from a filmmaker who truly appreciates and is a fan of the genre, while also wanting to make something of her own in this adaptation of a sprawling story. Working with co-writers Phil Graziadei and Kyle Killen, Janiak weaves nostalgic horror with romance and adventure of modern sensibilities.
The central love story introduced between Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) starts to parallel the opening lyrics of Pixies’ song ‘Hey’ as connections are made between Shadyside’s past and present. What’s initially between the two of them is distance; Sam moved to a preppy neighboring town called Sunnyvale, and Deena had a hard time adjusting to the change. The towns are 30 minutes apart but for Deena, the distance feels immense. Janiak does a good job portraying how dramatic any given experience can be for teenagers. Deena and Sam’s first scene together is an escalating argument in the midst of a football game, which sort of questionably mirrors tensions rising on the field between the Sunnyvale Devils and the Shadyside Witches. Shaky editing aside, the weight of their almost love-hate relationship is established from the get-go, which makes forthcoming plot reveals feel more resonant. There’s still a lot of emotional residue from their relationship and conversations around identity. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch share a strong chemistry that captures bottled up feelings well. Outside of their relationship, the film introduces characters who make up a central circle of friends: theory enthusiast Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), cheerleading captain Kate (Julia Rehwald), and classmate Simon (Fred Hechinger). Everyone but Deena is convinced the Shadyside Mall attack is the doing of condemned witch Sarah Fier, who as the story goes cheated death by cutting off her hand to grip the town and has returned for more revenge. But Deena soon realizes the danger they all face. After the group of friends have an accidental encounter with Fier’s cursed grave, they are suddenly thrust into her infinite thirst for blood and chased by her army of possessed killers.
From left to right: Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, and Kiana Madeira in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Benjamin Flores Jr. in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Leigh Janiak’s adaptation takes some creative liberties with Stine’s Fear Street books, capturing the horror spirit while adding new elements such as the mythology of Sarah Fier, a character who features prominently in spirit as Part 1 explores witch-driven madness. Janiak has a clear vision and is able to tease the mystery out across decades, building towards a feeling of anticipation for the second installment. Without falling into too many overwhelming trappings of predictability, Janiak captures teenaged angst through setting and character. With the added support of Amanda Ford’s costume design, the 90s vibes are fairly consistent all the way through. With fun references to certain films such as Craven's Scream and John Carpenter's Halloween, Fear Street 1994 enjoyably plays into the slasher horror genre. Janiak also leans into the markedly more violent aspects of the source material, with some gruesome onscreen kills that explain the film’s R rating for bloody horror violence, including a really unfortunate scene involving a bread slicer.
At the center of this Fear Street adaptation lies character dynamics and the underlying conversation around who becomes Sarah Fier’s scapegoats. Characters who are having a hard time with identity, who feel like social outcasts and are trying to escape a dreary town. When thinking about Shadysiders from the way Sunnyvale sees them, for instance, they are looked down upon. Leigh Janiak and co-writers explore a world in which characters’ fates are decided for them by a systemic rot that permeates in the town. The infinite cursed cloud that hangs over Shadyside goes back centuries and persists systemically. Deena is a great character to lead the audience through this story; she leads with a fearless protection for those she loves and cares about, particularly Sam in a fight for survival. While some of the actors fall a little flat, Kiana Madeira gives a strong performance that becomes one of the main anchors of the story, as does Benjamin Flores Jr. who plays Josh. It’s his passionate knowledge, and immersion into AOL theory chats, that connects the dots in Shadyside.
Fear Street 1994 captures the adrenaline rush of watching a fun 90s slasher, incorporates memorable character dynamics, and turns the gore level up several notches. The tactic of unleashing the fear in three installments is off to a reviving start. For a story centered on a seemingly never-ending reign of terror, the filmmakers succeed with a structure designed to build on there being more to come. Part 1 ends on an edge-of-your-seat note that promises to bring on the mystery and evokes a familiar comfort to Stine readers, leaving fans thirsty for more.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 releases July 2nd exclusively on Netflix at www.netflix.com/FearStreet.
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