The first two entries in Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy from director Leigh Janiak have been widely described (and widely praised) within the bounds of language often devoted to slasher movies—as solid “popcorn entertainment” and “simple fun” that represents, in this case, a welcome divergence from the more serious streak of arthouse horror we’ve been experiencing of late. And although it is true that there’s nothing “elevated” or pretentious about any of these three Fear Street entries, to simply think of them as slasher films isn’t quite right either, despite their gory flair. They’re not even really meta-slashers in the mold of Scream, which was relentlessly name-checked by critics as they appraised first entry Fear Street: 1994 in particular. Rather, the real meat of this trilogy is a metaphysical, supernatural mystery that spans across lifetimes and centuries—it’s a story that uses the trappings of slasher cinema in two different eras, the ‘90s and ‘70s, in order to get at eventual themes of scapegoating, privilege and corrupted history. This is the bigger message that final entry Fear Street Part Three: 1666 attempts to deliver, albeit in a clumsier manner than its previous time jump, in a more difficult setting to truly capture. Three movies in, the little absurdities of this series are beginning to mount, but it at least manages to remain briskly entertaining and pretty damn bloody.
When we last left teenage protagonist Deena (Kiana Madeira), she had attempted to end the curse of witch Sarah Fier by reuniting her severed hand with its long-buried body, only to see her consciousness thrown across the vasts of time, Quantum Leap-style, into none other than the literal body of Sarah Fier. As it turns out, however, the end of Fear Street: 1978 is a bit misleading in this regard—we aren’t actually watching a fully aware (and confused as hell) Deena navigating the year 1666, but instead witnessing the life of Sarah Fier as more passive observers. And it’s not that the witch is a long-lost ancestor of Deena’s, or is meant to look exactly like her, as initially appears—rather, we somewhat confusingly come to realize that she simply looks like Deena to us, but like another teenage girl entirely to everyone else.
This same, slightly awkward mechanic is then extrapolated to the entire colony of Union, which will one day split to form towns of haves (Sunnyvale) and have-nots (Shadyside). Actors from throughout the series are all able to appear again in this manner, from Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger as new characters who are echos of Deena’s dead friends Kate and Simon from 1994, to Ashley Zukerman playing the ancestor of his own sheriff character, Solomon Goode. It’s not so much “magical,” as it is a visual tool to help the audience assign archetypes to the characters as soon as we see them, based on the characters they play in 1978 and 1994. Does it really feel like it makes sense, in the end? Not really, but it quickly becomes clear that just because it’s 1666, we’re not suddenly going to be heading into dour, grounded, “elevated horror” territory. The appearing and disappearing accents of nearly every character should be evidence enough of this.
As a result, the portions of 1666 that actually do take place in the titular year are hamstrung a bit by a certain lack of gravitas—these teenage actors often feel awkward and out of place, imbuing tropes of 1990s teenage rebellion onto characters who likely would have been treated as grizzled adults by the time they turned 17, some 350 years ago. The Witch this is not, but that’s ultimately fine—although the themes may be something like a mash-up of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, the tone has a much more pop mentality that is at least consistent throughout.
The driving point here is a reframing of the story you thought you knew after two movies—the true nature of Sarah Fier and the curse upon Shadyside. Suffice to say, Fier’s life proves to be a mirror of Deena’s own, with a love story even more taboo in her timeline than it was in Deena’s. A few effective twists later—most of which strain credibility once you give them any thought, so it’s better not to—the audience ends up with a very different perspective on the force behind all the slasher-style slayings that have haunted Shadyside over the centuries.
It’s here that 1666 really hits its stride, in the moment when it’s finally done with reflection and exposition, hitting the ground running with zany ambition as it returns back to 1994 for its bloody conclusion. In particular, there’s a certain silly joy in seeing FEAR STREET 1994: PART 2 suddenly splashed up on screen more than an hour into the proceedings here—an official, full-circle return to the aesthetic that worked so well in the first installment of the series. The subsequent return of licensed music (The Offspring pop up memorably) is also arguably at its most effective here, as its understandable absence throughout 1666 makes the needle drops feel fresher and less tacked-on than the endless parade of ‘70s hits heard in 1978 in particular.
At the end of the day, the Fear Street trilogy doesn’t quite explore the social issues it raises and name-checks as thoroughly as Janiak may have wanted when writing these scripts, but enough of her intent survives to leave its perspective intact. More importantly, the trilogy is rarely anything but entertaining, in a populist way that hearkens back to an earlier age of broadly accessible studio horror films, while avoiding the whitewashed nature and tame horror elements of those same films. They feel like something you might have seen in a multiplex in the last 20 years, albeit with a gory flair for genuine horror chops that would have made them anathema in the PG-13 horror era. In 2021, and especially as a Netflix original, it helps Fear Street stand out in its own way, a well-balanced blend of the novel and the comfortably familiar, with just enough of an edge to tempt even the discerning horror geeks in the audience. Janiak’s task was an ambitious and difficult one—she deserves credit for guiding it through to its grisly end.
Director: Leigh Janiak
Writers: Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei, Kate Trefry
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Ashley Zukerman, Gillian Jacobs, Benjamin Flores Jr., Olivia Scott Welch
Release date: July 16, 2021, (Netflix)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.