Fear Street Part 1: 1994 review – Netflix trilogy kicks off with gory gusto

The first adaptation of teen horror author RL Stine’s set of supernatural books makes for a marvelously entertaining throwback slasher

For a generation who came of age with both the post-Scream slasher resurgence of the late 90s and the pre-YA boom in teen-focused horror novels that started before it (at least before the term YA was widely used), the arrival of this summer’s ambitious Fear Street trilogy will bring with it a sense of giddy excitement.

The promise of an R-rated set of slashers based on the hit franchise from RL Stine, the “Stephen King of children’s literature”, focused on high schoolers grappling with a murder mystery, carries with it a cautious throwback charm, ultimate success being heavily dependent on a vital mastering of tone. How to rebrand a goofy Scooby Doo-adjacent story aimed at younger teens as a scary, and violent, triptych of shockers to be taken seriously by a wider audience, whose horror diet is far more advanced and overstuffed? How to drag the camp world of luridly embossed book covers into the 2020s, from dark corners of the school library to the global spotlight of Netflix?

It’s a gamble made even riskier by the decision to make the entire trilogy at once, a brash assumption that audiences would not only enjoy chapter one but that they’d want two more in quick succession. It’s also one that scared original backers Fox off, the films sold to Netflix after a summer of theatrical releases was canned as a result of Covid-19. Expecting crowds to show up for three films released just weeks apart might have been too much of an ask (especially with consumers now more online than ever before) but at home, with each one dropping over the next three weeks, it’s a far more realistic proposition. For horror fans, there’s something gratifying about the slick ceremony attached to an eventising of a genre that’s so often treated with a detached carelessness, especially with regards to sequels: more of the same, less of the thrill. With Fear Street there’s the sort of extravagant world-building and myth-making that we only see within superhero cinema, three stories that exist in the same place but at different times, each interlinked by a common foe and the curse she brings upon a small town.

In part one, it’s 1994 (landlines, AOL, Portishead) and yet another massacre has hit Shadyside (AKA Shittyside), the umpteenth time a resident has snapped and killed those within a close vicinity, motivation unknown. Local teens whisper the name of Sarah Fier, a witch who died centuries prior, a legend that some think is to blame. For Deena (Kiana Madeira), the news only adds to her annoyance at where she comes from, at odds with the more refined, and less murder-stricken, town of Sunnyvale, where her ex Sam (Olivia Welch) has recently moved. After an accident brings them both together again, any rekindling is put on the back burner when supernatural forces send them and their friends on a dangerous mission.

There’s a key earnestness that director Leigh Janiak (best known for the hit-and-miss body horror Honeymoon and, importantly, episodes of the Scream TV series) brings to the material, a lack of smugness or condescension that takes the teens and their story seriously, something many directors would have failed at. The jabs at nostalgia might be rather obvious (the needle drop soundtrack is hilariously but of course, yet for many of us of a certain age, still fun) and the specifics of the plot incredibly hokey but there’s no wink-wink, yeah we know this is silly, sense of being hipper than thou and instead, it’s like we’re curled up reading it on the school bus, treated like the Stine fans of the past not the eye-rolling cool kids of the future. One of the key misunderstandings of Scream’s staggering, genre-reviving success back in 1996 was that archness should be a defining part of horror going forward. But while the self-referential nature of Kevin Williamson’s script was a key element of its pop culture dominance, it was also a film that, crucially, respected its characters and the gravity of their emotional dynamics, as rooted in slasher horror as it was in teen drama (Janiak retaining that film’s composer Marco Beltrami for a high-drama and high-impact score is a nice, and thrilling, touch).

Olivia Welch and Kiana Madeira in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Olivia Welch and Kiana Madeira in Fear Street Part 1: 1994 Photograph: NETFLIX

The script, from Janiak and Phil Graziadei, manages a similar (if, obviously, nowhere near as groundbreaking) balance here, unfolding its central mystery with pace while also proving particularly effective in its casual centering of a queer romance, a not-to-be-underestimated big step given how LGBTQ characters are usually denied a place at the table when it comes to the horror genre. An ensemble film made up of largely unknown young actors is as dicey as the entire endeavour itself but what’s most remarkable about Fear Street is just how excellent each and every cast member is, adding genuine weight to the drama. Madeira is an inexperienced but strikingly self-assured lead who has palpable chemistry with Welch (the only good thing about Amazon’s YA show Panic) while rapper-actor Benjamin Flores Jr makes for a charming younger brother and rising star Fred Hechinger (the only good thing about The Woman in the Window) is a standout once again as a quippy friend. Watching them all interact recalls that unusual joy we also felt while watching Scream or The Faculty or The Breakfast Club, of young untested actors instantly and enthusiastically proving their worth, names to be remembered for future reference – with real disappointment when their bodies start to pile up (the film’s MVP is arguably casting director Carmen Cuba).

There’s real, seat-edge fun to be had here, the sort of fun that’s too often missing from modern horror (we saw a glimpse of it in last year’s equally well-balanced Freaky), whether it be a result of a stony-faced attempt to fit into the so-called “elevated” sub-genre or an overreliance on nausea-inducing nastiness (there’s gore here but, vitally, other things too).

Fear Street is the rarest kind of audacious Hollywood gamble: the kind that, at least after chapter one, appears to have actually paid off.

  • Fear Street: 1994 is available on Netflix from 2 July


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fear Street Part 3: 1666 review – hokey horror trilogy ends on a high
Netflix’s big-bet slasher franchise goes back in time before leaping forward again in a rousing and immensely satisfying finale

Benjamin Lee

16, Jul, 2021 @2:56 PM

Article image
Things Heard and Seen review – moody Netflix ghost story fails to haunt
Amanda Seyfried is a woman coming undone, thanks to a supernatural entity and a toxic husband, in a strangely inert combination of horror and drama

Charles Bramesco

29, Apr, 2021 @2:18 PM

Article image
Fear Street Part 2: 1978 review – summer camp slasher is another winner
Netflix’s flashy RL Stine trilogy continues with a darker Friday the 13th-aping horror that brings more shocking gore and excellent performances

Benjamin Lee

07, Jul, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
The Perfection review – gory Netflix horror offers imperfect intrigue
Get Out’s Allison Williams plays a mysterious cellist in an intermittently alluring yet flatly directed B-movie that tries too hard to shock

Benjamin Lee

23, May, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Platform review – fiendish Netflix thriller about a gory battle for food
In this gruesomely effective Spanish fable, people are placed on rotating levels with different amounts to eat, leading to madness and horror

Benjamin Lee

20, Mar, 2020 @7:41 PM

Article image
1922 review – bleak, slow-burn Stephen King adaptation burrows under the skin
A lesser-known novella from the bestselling author lands on Netflix with a transformative performance from Thomas Jane and a mounting sense of dread

Benjamin Lee

19, Oct, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Invisible Man review – Elisabeth Moss brings murky thriller to life
A reliably committed lead performance ignites a mostly enjoyable, often timely, take on the HG Wells story that falls apart in the final act

Benjamin Lee

25, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Death Note review – overstuffed Netflix horror is a flawed but fun emo ride
This chaotic Hollywood adaptation of the celebrated Japanese series has enough going on for an entire season – but there are still reckless thrills to be had

Benjamin Lee

25, Aug, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Rattlesnake review – disposable supernatural Netflix thriller lacks bite
Carmen Ejogo is a mother forced to make a horrifying sacrifice in a staggeringly dull film bereft of suspense, creativity and purpose

Benjamin Lee

25, Oct, 2019 @7:01 AM

Article image
Night Teeth review – stylish Netflix vampire horror needs more bite
There’s a certain flair to director Adam Randall’s Collateral-with-blood-sucking caper but not enough to disguise a reheated script

Benjamin Lee

20, Oct, 2021 @5:45 PM