Netflix launches its new horror trilogy with “Fear Street Part One: 1994”, the first film of three that are set to premiere on the streaming giant within weeks of each other. Based on a popular teen horror book series by R.L. Stine, “Fear Street” was originally slated for distribution by 20th Century Fox but COVID-19 delays led the Netflix sweeping in and grabbing the rights. Now they’re set to release the films a matter of days apart which makes for an interesting choice.
I haven’t read much on “Fear Street” so I’m (happily) going in blind. I’m anxious to see if the three movies set in very different time periods will also play around in different horror genres. “1994” is a slasher movie through and through. It’s filled with so many unlikable and insufferable teens that it will leave you questioning the future of human civilization. But that’s not the only genre trope “1994” leans into. It full-on embraces the nostalgia, sticking pretty close to the tried-and-true slasher formula and spending a lot of time setting up the movies that will follow.
Leigh Janiak directs “Part One” from a script she wrote with Phil Graziadei. To no surprise the story is set in 1994 and begins with an opening that borrows A LOT from Wes Craven’s “Scream”. It’s set in the small town of Shadyside that has earned the nickname “Killer Capital USA” due to its generations-long murder rate that would rival any crime-infested big city. Instead of Drew Barrymore it’s Maya Hawke who is terrorized by a knife-wielding murderer (this one in a skeleton mask) while closing up her shop in the town mall. Soon she along with several disposable bodies are laying in pools of blood. And so the festivities begin.
Enter the 90’s playlist where Bush, Cypress Hill, Sophie B. Hawkins, White Zombie, Radiohead, and the like are used to steadily remind us of what decade we’re in. Actually capturing the 90’s is one of the film’s biggest strength. Everything from landlines to flashy neon point to an era that was longer ago than it seems. It’s also a time when the well-received “Scream” briefly revived the slasher genre. It’s hard to say if “1994” is trying to do the same or if it’s just basking in the nostalgia of Craven’s considerably better film.
It turns out those opening murders are linked to Shadyside’s long history of bloodshed which will be explored in the next two films. It doesn’t make much sense yet, but it has something to do with a one-handed witch who cursed the town before being executed some 300 years ago. To sort it out we get a group of teen super-sleuths, none of them really fleshed out or given much identity other than a little surface detail. Deena (Kiana Madeira) is a moody outcast still smarting over a breakup with Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch). The movie tries to make their relationship matter but it’s really just a patched together token romance that stands out more for its cringy dialogue than its emotional resonance.
Other key players are Kate (Julia Rehwald), a cheerleader and campus Ms. Popular who also happens to be a drug pusher and pharmaceuticals expert. There’s Simon (Fred Hechinger), a neurotic and consistently annoying cornball who is always amped up to max. And then we have Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), Deena’s brother and a bonafide geek with a big interest in the deadly history of his hometown that’s certain to come in handy. The five find themselves on the run from three resurrected crazies from Shadyside’s gruesome past who seem shamelessly inspired by horror movie killers we’ve seen before. Soon the town finds itself once again drenched in blood and we see it happen through some deliciously gory killings. Both the effects work and Janiak’s imagination is enough to impress any slasher fan.
But neither the story nor the characters have enough weight to make “1994” feel like anything other than a retro slasher knockoff. In many ways it plays a lot like “Goosebumps” with lots of gore and potty-mouths. Janiak throws in some dashes of high school melodrama, but none of it is very engaging and it doesn’t make the characters any more relatable. So we’re left watching them run around town with killers on their heels, the score blaring, and a few pieces being laid for the next films. It’s hard to know what to expect from them (tagged “1978” and “1666” respectfully). Hopefully something a little meatier and with better characters. Or maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe this is all about the nostalgia in which case we should just sit back and watch Janiak play in her slasher movie sandbox. “Fear Street Part One: 1994” premieres today on Netflix.