‘Fear Street Part One: 1994’ Review – A Love Letter to Slasher Horror

Summer and horror go together like a psycho with a kitchen knife. It’s hot, warm bodies are out, and the urge is KILLER— and Netflix is taking advantage of the season by giving us a whole Fear Street TRILOGY doled out in a matter of WEEKS. (Not yelling at anyone, just typing it out to make sure this is real.) Netflix boldly billed its three-part Fear Street as the “movie event of the summer.” And you know what? They’re goddamn right about the hype.

Perhaps I’m biased because I marathoned The Conjuring Universe through June before arriving here in July at Fear Street’s doorstep. I’ve been in horror mode all summer and I’m stoked in more ways than one. R.L. Stine, author of the Fear Street series, is likened to many as the gateway to Stephen King. But for those of us dorks who spent our recesses at the library and genuinely looked forward to Scholastic book orders, R.L. Stine WAS our Stephen King.

I can probably name more Goosebumps books than the Fear Street series. (Goosebumps and Animorphs, man, those were the days.) Off the bat, I remember one about a dare to kill a teacher, murders at a beach house, at a Halloween party, and I remember “Wrong Number” which gets a shoutout in Fear Street Part One: 1994.

Going from Night of the Living Dummy to Fear Street was like a quantum leap; you were reading something that was geared for the high school crowd, so dabbling in those serials felt like you were in! I wasn’t, obviously, because reading became unpopular well before I got to high school. But it sure felt like it at the time. Before movies, TV, and video games took over my brain, books made me feel connected to people.

When I saw what the Goosebumps movie was, it kinda dashed hopes that I had for a straight up horror adaptation of Stine’s works. I’ve been praying for an R-rated version since Stine became a staple in my childhood fears, and we’ve finally got it with Netflix’s Fear Street.

Kicking off with Part One, we follow Deena, an angst-ridden teen who’s resigned to her fate that everything’s doomed and she’ll be stuck in Shadyside for the rest of her life. Director Leigh Janiak nails the melodrama of being in high school, where everyone’s sucking face and grab-assing; classmates dream of leaving, parents are nonexistent, and siblings feel like the biggest burden.

Everything we’re going through is sucked into a giant singularity that we experience all at once. High school is a time when everything is life or death, when a lovers’ quarrel feels as monumental as a school rivalry, or as whirlwind as running away from a serial killer. I don’t know what’s more impressive, the way Janiak illustrates the Shakespearean pomposity of teenage love, or how she conveys the class divide between Shadyside and warring town Sunnyvale through a single montage on a bus.

Part One is obvious with its horror movie influences and this is the portal that allows Fear Street to be properly R-rated. Stine’s books are the jumping off point. From there, we go right into Scream. Like Drew Barrymore, Maya Hawke also comes from Hollywood royalty and is served up as the movie’s first victim. Part One wields all the hashtags, fancams, and fan art from Hawke’s prior role as Robin in Stranger Things 3 right down to her job at the mall. She may as well be running and screaming past Scoops Ahoy at Starcourt. You don’t want her to die because SHE’S A WHOLE MOOD, or SHE’S GODDAMN ASPIRATIONAL. And then she dies.

From there it’s a diehard horror fan’s wet dream. The movie is reminiscent of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Then there are actual mentions of Night of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, and JAWS. There’s a hooded killer that harkens back to Jason Voorhees’ pre-hockey mask days, or rather, the baddie in The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The film’s second act may as well be the 4th season of Stranger Things that everybody keeps demanding from Netflix, but it is so much more The Faculty-esque. (If you’ve never seen this 1998 gem that has Elijah Wood snorting drugs, then we’re not compatible.)

These references are more pastiche than parody. Parody is a sending up of a genre, a trope, or a concept, whereas Part One lovingly nods to everything it quotes right down to its heavy-handed needle drops. (You know what you’re doing when you blur Cypress Hill into Radiohead’s “Creep.”) Whether you spot the references, imitations, and pop culture touchstones, it’s a good time either way, though Fear Street takes it a step further. It’s a remix of a ghost story, a possession story, and an undead movie rolled into the 90s slasher.

What’s fun and modern about Part One is how it weaponizes the slasher genre expectations against its audience à la Scream; it even establishes movie rules to follow and upend. Take the three core slasher franchises as an example: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street. As each series went on, the kills became exceedingly the point. No one cared past the main character so you could sit back and watch annoying teens get hacked to death.

We know going into Part One (especially after that opener) that people are going to die. Early on, quite a bit of people do. Then we take a breather from the body count before the slashing starts again. Except we’ve been endeared to Deena and Sam’s push and pull relationship, Kate and Simon’s exceptional popular-clique banter, and Deena’s brother Josh who trades knowledge of Shadyside’s shady history like baseball cards. Halfway through, we’re fooled into thinking everybody’s safe and will make it to the end. Getting viewers to care about the characters seems like a simple thing to do, but it’s much harder to pull off when they’re given stock motivations or bland personalities, or if they’re not good actors. Then, you can’t WAIT to see them bite the dust.

The characters in Part One, fortunately or unfortunately, have multiple moments to leave their mark – earn a laugh or three, steal the show, and emerge in the hero spotlight. The finale is double-stuffed with the dread that not all parties will survive. I was genuinely gutted when it happened. There’s one kill that’s so grisly (gnarly?) that I’m shocked the producers okayed it AND that it survived test screenings. Less to do with how the character dies, more that they’re so damn likable to die in such a gruesome manner.

I don’t want to reveal any more because I find all of this so freakin’ rad. If you’ve got the bloodlust, then Fear Street’s got you covered. My one nitpick is that there is so much table-setting in Part One that it jars the pacing and overall tone. Characters stop to deep dive into exposition, and next they’re off to advance the plot. It’s not as smooth as the movie wants to be, like someone learning to drive stick. There’s a lot of story to thread and plot points to dangle going into the next two movies, which essentially makes Part One the first act of the trilogy.

Sure, it’s episodic and ends with a cliffhanger but in no way am I suggesting this should’ve been a season of television. (If the MCU can get away with cliffhangers then there’s no reason Fear Street can’t do the same.) The feature film allows Janiak to stage swift and violent set pieces that would’ve lost momentum had it been spaced out between episodes. The format also enables Janiak to craft a full-blown time capsule of a 90s slasher that a whole season order can’t sustain.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 is ambitiously gunning for the late-night drive-in movies that gave the horror genre its bedrock in the 70s. Part One’s modern and unique take on the slasher bathed in glorious neon lighting make this ultra-violent stroll down Fear Street worth a midnight drive or two, or three. I would’ve killed to see this at a drive-in theater, or at a school gymnasium for maximum surrealism. It’s the drive-in showing repurposed as a streaming summer event. In a season packed with studio tentpoles, Fear Street hacks up its own territory in the cultural spotlight.

Fear Street movies every summer, Netflix, please and thank you.

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