Part One of Fear Street proves an enjoyable, creepy thrill ride, even if it loses steam towards the end.
This review of Fear Street Part One: 1994 is spoiler-free.
“It began as a prank, and ended in murder,” says Heather, played by Maya Hawke (who’s graduated from an eighties teenage horror-nostalgia Netflix TV show set in a mall to nineties teenage horror-nostalgia Netflix movie set in a mall). She’s describing a book she just sold, but the line is meant to foreshadow the movie that it opens. Unintentionally however, the sense of escalation implied could potentially alienate viewers; as familiar high school horror turns develops into a hackneyed slasher movie that doesn’t seem to care much about the consequences of its story.
Fear Street Part One: 1994 is, as the title suggests, the first in a trilogy of horror films based on R.L Stine’s book series (no, not Goosebumps) of the same name. All three, directed by Leigh Janiek, will be released on successive Fridays; an “innovative” strategy by Netflix (actually closely following the original theatrical release plan — ditched due to Covid and the films were sold to Netflix.)
Like the books, the films are set in the town of Shadyside known as “Killer Capital USA.” Why anyone would live in a town with a reputation for serial killers is not apparently a question that crossed the mind of Fear Street’s three credited writers.
After yet another killing spree occurs, members of Shadyside high school gather for a vigil with their counterparts from Sunnyvale, the wealthier, less murderous town next door. Among them is Deena, who is going through the motions after her ex, Sam, moved to Sunnyside.
A series of pranks results in Sam unleashing a Witch’s curse (apparently everyone in Shadyside believes that their murderous reputation is caused by the death of a witch named Sarah Fier — get it, Fier). Deena and her friends find themselves haunted by a murderer in a skeleton costume and try to get to the bottom of things before the bodies stack up.
Despite some familiar moments and broad characterization (we are shown that Deena doesn’t fit in because she listens to Creep by Radiohead, etc.), the first half of the movie is a rip-roaring, fitfully scary affair.
Visual flourishes such as colorful lighting and set design make the film seem pulled from one of Stine’s book covers, and a fun title sequence sets the history rewinding tone that follows. Janiek keeps the first half laced with suspense without losing track of the character dynamics that make the movie so engaging.
That is until the second half, which slowly descends into a series of staid cliches and uninteresting shocks that end up having little impact on the plot. (Sidenote: Why does every teen movie need a scene of the female characters in their bras? I blame Riverdale.) Illogical plotting distracts from the characters, and the final act will prove mighty unsatisfying for some (granted, there are two more movies, but that isn’t the kind of narrative satisfaction I’m referring to).
The teen actors themselves are a mixed bag. Newcomer Julia Rehwald steals the show as Kate, the popular girl, while Fred Hechinger plays a character who’s more irritating than he is funny. The adult actors, Ashley Zuckerman as the sheriff and Darell Britt-Gibson as his arrestee, seem to be off in their own movie — one hopefully depicted in either of the next two Fear Street chapters.
Ultimately Fear Street settles neatly into the shelf next to Stranger Things. It’s more violent (and less repetitive) than the latter, but coasts on nostalgia-core just the same. Thankfully it’s enjoyable enough to be more than just another Netflix “Original” destined to be forgotten as soon as it’s released, but staying power will depend on the quality of the next two installments.