Review: “Fear Street Part One: 1994”

While he is most well-known for his “Goosebumps” properties, famed author R.L. Stine also dabbled in a slightly older audience with his series “Fear Street” which was recently revived in the second half of the 2010s. In fact, in 2015 talks began to bring “Fear Street” to the big screen through then-20th Century Fox in an aggressive strategy to film three movies back-to-back and release them a month apart. Fast forward to 2020 and not only was the trilogy delayed due to the pandemic but the partnership between production company Charnin Entertainment and the now-Disney owned 20th Century Films expired eventually leading all three movies to be released this month, July of 2021, on Netflix in back-to-back weeks. The first film in the trilogy is “Fear Street Part One: 1994”, a tribute to classic horror features of the 80s and 90s and beyond that sees a group of friends try to save one of their own from the curse of a legendary witch in the town of Shadyside, the same town from the book series. Bloody, fast paced and embracing the right kind of nostalgic charm “Fear Street Part One” is a great start to a promising horror franchise.

Screenshot Courtesy of Netflix

“Fear Street Part One” is the purest fun I’ve had watching a horror movie since “Freaky” hit the scene last year. The film’s plot, obviously set in the mid-90s, focuses on Deena (Kiana Madeira) a closeted lesbian, her drug-dealing friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Mechinger), Deena’s brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr.) and Deena’s estranged ex-girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) from neighboring Sunnyvale. When they discover that Sam is being stalked by the previous killers of the seemingly cursed Shadyside at the behest of a legendary evil witch their fight for answers and survival erupts into a bloodbath across town setting the stage for a trilogy that plans to explore the dark history of what has been deemed the murder capital of the nation. “Fear Street Part One” unapologetically mashes together countless callbacks to horror classics and clichés in the way many modern slashers have tended to do, including the aforementioned “Freaky”, yet somehow horror remains the only genre able to consistently honor itself time and time again while still somehow feeling fresh and enjoyable as the equivalent of genre comfort food.

Screenshot Courtesy of Netflix

The characters in this movie are quite a bit of fun to watch. The entire cast of young names portray their teenage counterparts with energy and a slight sense of self-awareness acknowledging that these are individuals filling familiar roles but they’re still their own people. The characters, while rooted in genre staples, are sympathetic and left me longing to see how their journeys will end in the forthcoming installments. Regardless of their flaws, I found myself hating the idea of these teenagers not making it out of their predicament and it’s not much of a spoiler to note that not everyone makes it out alive. That’s a good start since with slashers part of the appeal is how invested we are in the characters’ survival and success compared to our enjoyment of the killing method of the villains. This is one of those slasher films that strikes that balance well. “Fear Street Part One” is an interesting animal in that its narrative lives off of a legacy and past we haven’t seen unfold yet, but will eventually through the forthcoming installments. Even with a lot of the pieces missing and handing us information that could spoil the other two films, “Fear Street Part One” lays a solid foundation feeding us only what it has to with the promise of more to come. We know what we need to know and that’s more than enough. This approach to exposition that doesn’t feel like it’s providing the whole story actually had me starving for more when the credits rolled to see how this world will be expanded on in the other two films and added to the intrigue of watching these young victims try to figure out their situation and put and end to the terror.

Screenshot Courtesy of Netflix

However “Fear Street Part One” feels maybe too focused setting up a larger world and giving slasher fans what they crave. To it’s credit it does that well, but there are much deeper elements I feel could have been more heavily incorporated into the story to give it some added subtext. The idea of a young lesbian couple trying to navigate the still-ignorant 90s, the overarching rivalry and hatred between Sunnyvale and Shadyside, the teenage angst of trying to escape the limitations of your home town…these are all deeper elements that are part of the story but they’re usually overshadowed by the film’s desire to get right to the killing and explore its larger universe. Maybe these are ideas that are better explored in the trilogy proper, but that’s one of the downsides of being only the part of a whole and is a seemingly unavoidable problem in series like this. Really though “Fear Street Part One” is designed to be pure entertainment that rides a fine line between controlled chaos and all out carnage and there’s nothing wrong with that when done right. Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak proves to be a promising future star of mainstream horror with an understanding of her craft and a clear love of the genre. It’s hard to put together an entire trilogy where each film must balance its own story as well as the larger overarching narrative. With this first film at least, the pacing, energy and style are so lively that I was completely on board in the first 20 minutes and never looked back. However, the film’s focus on genre standards keeps it from really setting itself apart from the crowd. It’s by far one of the best slashers in recent years, up there with “Hush” and “Freaky” as one of my favorites, but I think its dependence on familiarity often overshadows more subtle elements that could have made it even more special as a stand-alone horror movie. As it stands though, this is a terrific genre flick in its own right.

Screenshot Courtesy of Netflix

What “Fear Street Part One: 1994” lacks in originality it makes up for in its undying dedication to getting all the classic horror elements right while building a world around it that sets us up for a complete trilogy experience. The beauty of this movie is that even though it clearly sets things up for the other two prequel films it’s also a feature you can enjoy by itself, granted one that forsakes its promising subtext. It’s retro appeal and dedication to all things bloody and brutal will certainly make it a delightful experience for mainstream horror fans while the performances and direction hint at great potential from all of those involved behind and in front of the camera. Overall, it might feel a bit too dependent on the same old clichés and genre staples that have come to define modern horror’s hunger to rekindle the joys of the past, but when done right these reminders of horror’s iconic lineage still come together to create great experiences. “Fear Street Part One” is so much fun on its own and sets a pretty high bar for what’s yet to come in the next two weeks.

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