It looks like 80s nostalgia is dead because those old enough to appreciate it are ageing out of the targeted demographics of studio execs. So here comes 90s nostalgia with Fear Street Part One: 1994, the first part in a back-to-back filmed trilogy of movies bringing part of the expansive Fear Street book series by Goosebumps author R. L. Stine to life (only to murder it brutally, of course).
This review is written having only watched Part One so far, and I’ll write the reviews of the subsequent movies as I go so that I’m coming at each part fresh. Considering Fear Street Part One is set in 1994 it goes without saying that the horror sub-genre that director and co-writer Leigh Janiak has plumped for is the teen slasher flick, Scream style. It’s barely 10 minutes in before we meet a Wes Craven inspired black-caped knife-wielding killer in a skull mask. The stalking camera terrorising a teenage mall bookshop employee might as well be the infamous Drew Barrymore scene in all but name. So you know where you are, right? Ah, but then the scene ends in such a way as to raise an eyebrow…
Whilst teen slasher is the predominant genre here, Fear Street Part One makes sure to keep you on your toes. An opening newspaper montage establishes the setting as Shadyside, the disadvantaged and potentially cursed neighbourhood bordering affluent Sunnyvale. ‘Potentially cursed’ as Shadyside has a long history of apparently normal people suddenly going on mass murder sprees, in a series of cases going back tens, if not hundreds of years starting from the execution of witch, Sarah Fier, in 1666.
Going into the movie knowing it is part of a time-spanning trilogy (Part Two is set in 1978 and Part Three in 1666) makes for a fun experience because you are mentally logging things that will likely be recurring motifs, such as the college sports teams named the Sunnyvale Devils and the Shadyside Witches, and a big camera grabbing tree that looms imposingly in the centre of the opening mall. Slasher movie mixed with ongoing themes, a collection of lethal (if somewhat standard) nasties to battle, and an oppressive blood curse that needs sleuthing logic (recalling such movies as the Final Destination franchise) makes for a fun night in of blood and guts mayhem.
Fear Street 1994’s weakest element is the teenage characters, who err too strongly on the side of unlikeable sulk merchants or bravado irritants. Deena Johnson (Kiana Madeira) is hung up on a disintegrated relationship. But it’s hard to sympathise when her ‘screw the world’ attitude which seems blindly self-imposed. Sam (Olivia Scott Welsh – Panic) receives abuse for moving from Shadyside to Sunnyville and turning her back on her roots, despite it being made clear she had no choice in the move. Drug dealers Kate and Simon (Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger) suffer from lacking in personality and having too much personality respectively. Only Deena’s younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), as the resident nerd and local historian murder expert, brings enough vulnerability to be sympathetic.
If the goal of a slasher film is to make you love or hate a character enough to care if they get brutally slaughtered then Fear Street 1994 is patchy. It isn’t until things are coming to a murderous conclusion that there is any tension about who will survive or not. That said, when one gloriously nasty death is served up, Janiak expertly drags the struggle out to give you enough time for the following thought process: “They wouldn’t do that, would they? They wouldn’t?! Oh noooo, ARRRGHH!!” That moment has stayed with me days after and makes me cackle in a way that can’t be healthy.
Between a soundtrack that crams as many big 90s Alt-Rock hits in as possible and an abundance of teenage angst, Fear Street Part One: 1994 arguably succeeds mostly off the back of the nostalgia element and by curve balling you with intriguing things to come. What it lacks in personal engagement it nails in tone. The hack ‘em slash ‘em of the Scream era is well transplanted onto the bones of a story with more to tell and as the credits rolled I was fired up and cheering for more. Did what happened at Summer Camp, stay in Summer Camp back in 1978?
Words by Mike Record