Movie Review: ‘Fear Street Part 1: 1994’

In the 1990’s author RL Stine found fame and fortune by introducing a generation young readers to horrors. While Goosebumps was there for younger readers, for teens Stine had his Fear Street series a series about the horrors of a fictional town named Shadyside. This year Fear Street is getting adapted into a three part film trilogy for Netflix exploring the dark history of Shadyside. Over the weekend the first installment of the series Fear Street Part One: 1994 hit the streamosphere to kick things off with a bang.

Caught in a rivalry are neighboring towns, Shadyside and Sunnyvale. While Sunnyvale is clean-cut and immaculate, Shadyside is edgier with a history of strange and violent crimes. Shadyside is home to Deena who is dealing with the nasty end of a relationship when her ex-girlfriend Sam moves to Sunnyvale and goes native. In addition to this she is taking on a large role in guiding her brother who is obsessed with using the burgeoning internet to explore the region’s dark past. When a killer in a skull mask begins a killing spree, Deena finds herself in the middle of it. Making things stranger is that Ryan Torres “the Skull Killer” was supposedly shot to death during his initial crimes. Soon a Pandora’s Box is opened as the teens of Shadyside learn that throughout their local history is a plethora of theatrical slashers with a supernatural mystique. Somehow Sam seems to have formed a psychic connection with the 15th century witch who was there at the beginning of it all and leads the group in discovering things are about to get a lot worse.

The movie starts with a bang as Maya Hawke who broke out in the last season of Stranger Things playing the Janet Leigh part and gets offed in the first act. It lasts mere minutes but it tells us that we are in for some fast-paced horror with fantastic cinematography. Newcomer director Leigh Janiak shows a true skill for capturing a creepy yet gorgeous visual language. Her use of color in setting the mood of a scene is masterful and reminiscent of the cult classic Manhunter. Her focus in making Fear Street is suspense over body count, which is a rarity in a slasher, needless to say she excels at this knowing just the right buttons to press. There are moments when we think we are out of the woods just for the seat to drop out from beneath us as we learn just how deep in it the characters are. Rest assured horror fans, when the kills do come they are fittingly bloody. On top of this the filmmaker proves more than capable of telling this segment of a larger trilogy in such a way that it stands perfectly on its own as a singular movie, but also gets you excited for the scares to come in future installments. Janiak also knows how to bring the best out of her young and largely inexperienced ensemble as each one of them is able to bring something out of their character that we can latch onto. Kiana Madeira is the perfect protagonist, strong enough to handle herself in any situation but with a vulnerability that draws the audience in and genuinely sucks the audience into her plights. As her friend, Simon, Fred Hechinger is razor sharp as the comic relief, bringing laughs at just the right moments but never so much that he takes over a scene. It is nearly impossible not to become emotionally invested in these teens as their situation goes from bad to worse, not just because they are the targets of undead killers after them, but because there are lofty emotional stakes at play as well.

I have to say for me personally the theme of two rival towns definitely resonated as living in Memphis, we are often compared quite unfavorably (by buttheads) to the other city down the Nashville, Tennessee. So when I watch Parks & Rec I connect with Pawnee over Eagleton and in Fear Street I connect with Shadyside over Sunnyvale. Serving as the movie’s focal point in this feud is Deena and Sam whose relationship serves perfectly as the heart and soul of the movie. If I do have a complaint, and it is a minor one, it is the heavy constant use of period music to reinforce the 90’s-ness of the setting during the first half of the film. Again this is a teeny-tiny complaint because said soundtrack does in fact kick-ass, filled with killer 90’s rock like: Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Garbage, Rob Zombie, Sophie B. Hawkins, and Cypress Hill so while it went overboard at times I’m not about to assemble a mob over it. Granted once things start coming to a terrifying head, this does balance out. Aside from this flourish, Leigh Janiak does not feel the need to constantly beat the audience over the head with 90’s references as many period pieces do. This is simply a movie set in 1994 and the focus is on scaring the hell out of the viewer instead of leaving them waxing nostalgically for the Clinton Administration and AOL.

If Fear Street Part One: 1994 is any indication this trilogy is going to be a scary and engrossing ride. With Fear Street Part Two: 1978 coming this weekend we luckily do not have to wait long for the next chapter. As the horror film output of 2021 looks to be stellar with offerings like the Candyman sequel, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and the rediscovered Amusement Park, the Fear Street trilogy looks to stand proudly alongside the best of them.