The two theatrically released adaptations of author R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of children’s horror books, in 2015 and 2018, disappointed some fans of the horror genre with their broad accessibility and lack of spooky bonafides. When you get right down to it, however, the Goosebumps films delivered exactly the sort of family friendly moviegoing experience that pretty much anyone should have been expecting from the series, especially if they’d ever read the source material. Goosebumps chapter books—they can’t really be called “novels”—were always a lighthearted traipse through the macabre, flirting with self-referentiality and capped by silly twist endings right out of the cheesier moments of The Twilight Zone. Not even the most horror-reticent child ever had nightmares as a result.
Fear Street, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Netflix’s new, three-part adaptation of Stine’s lesser-known book series of the same name, which was aimed at teenage readers rather than younger kids, dispenses entirely with the idea of reining in its bloodier impulses. It’s as surprisingly vicious as it is ambitious, kicking off its trilogy in fine style with the propulsive first installment titled Fear Street Part One: 1994, which hits the streamer on July 2, 2021. Both loving tribute to the genre and savvy reinvention, it’s an impressive (and attractive) sophomore effort from director Leigh Janiak, who directed all three interconnected installments, including the upcoming Fear Street: 1978 (releasing July 9) and Fear Street: 1666 (releasing July 16).
To the most seasoned horror geeks in the house, Janiak’s success here may not be as much of a surprise, as her underrated 2014 debut Honeymoon starring Rose Leslie was a deeply unnerving and tightly directed clinic on suspense, with no shortage of gross-out payoff. The real question was if that Janiak would show up here, as one doesn’t exactly expect a Netflix horror film adapted from a YA book series to echo the kind of transgressive body horror seen in Honeymoon. The results, however, are more genuinely bloody and less compromising than many will be expecting.
Fear Street: 1994 kicks off its action by introducing us to the town of Shadyside, an unfortunate and luckless place most famous for the penchant it seems to bear for the occasional psycho bloodbath. For decades, or even centuries, it seems as if residents of Shadyside occasionally “snap,” embarking on over-the-top rampages that evoke the spree killings of classic slasher villains. Interestingly, the film wastes absolutely no time in explaining to us exactly why this occurs, cementing from its opening credits (and then again in the first scene, in case you missed it) that a witch named Sarah Fier executed in the 1600s has reached out across space and time, through the centuries, to curse Shadyside to an unending cycle of violence.
That time-hopping conceit gives Fear Street: 1994 (and presumably the upcoming installments) all the license they need to really luxuriate in their horror genre tributes, which come in formats both obvious and significantly more subtle. Maya Hawke’s appearance in the opening of 1994 cements the obvious Scream comparisons for this installment in particular, as she’s immediately in the “Drew Barrymore” role, in a sequence that includes ringing phones, a masked, black-robed figure, and a very Scream-like chase sequence. 1994 is rife with references to many other horror films as well, though, from Poltergeist and Blair Witch to Evil Dead, Flatliners, Friday the 13th and It Follows. It even draws inspiration from some truly under-the-radar entries, such as Scott Spiegel’s underrated (and very gory) 1989 slasher Intruder, which sees one of its kills replicated here in gooey fashion.
These tributes have already led to critics classifying Fear Street: 1994 as a “slasher film” itself, but that’s not truly the case—nor is it even really a “meta slasher” in the proper sense. Rather, this Fear Street trilogy appears to be an ambitious, supernatural horror mystery that aims to span the course of centuries. It makes use of slasher trappings and iconography as a familiar tool, but also as a means of misdirection, keeping the audience focused on the knife-wielding maniac when really it’s the characters kept out of sight who are more integral to the narrative. In doing so, 1994 cleverly keeps the viewer at arm’s length from its deeper mysteries, to be explored in more detail in 1978 and 1666, while never failing to entertain in the moment. The screenplay from Janiak and Phil Graziadei drops breadcrumbs skillfully throughout, with off-the-cuff lines of dialogue paying dividends later.
So too is the story of Fear Street interested in more than just supernatural horror, being replete with social commentary in the vein of George Romero. It’s impossible to miss that the residents of Shadyside, including our protagonist Deena (Kiana Madeira), her friend Kate (Julia Rehwald) and the members of her high school football team look to be disproportionately people of color, while the competing, “preppy” sister city of Sunnyvale projects an uncaring white affluence that makes light of Shadyside’s violence. As one particularly insufferable Sunnyvale douchebag puts it—at a candlelight vigil for dead Shadyside students no less—“it’s not a tragedy when it happens every week, it’s a joke.” Rarely has the crippling lack of empathy present in our society been highlighted so succinctly.
In fact, the kids of Fear Street do the story major credit by simply feeling like actual people born of the appropriate era, from the semi-closeted relationship of Deena and her girlfriend Samantha (Olivia Welch), to the fact that her friend Kate is casually dealing opioids on the side, roping the girls she’s babysitting into sorting pills for her. None of these characters have been designed as virtuous, valorous role models for a young adult audience. Instead, the tone has more of the edgy, joyfully nihilistic streak present in something like Heathers. Tack on some legitimately brutal deaths, and you have a very effective modern black comedy/horror hybrid in the making, enhanced by an evocative score, crisp cinematography, lively camera and appropriately grungy soundtrack of early ‘90s classics. There’s a lot to like here, in the first of three installments.
Perhaps the most complimentary thing that can be said of Fear Street: 1994, however, is that it genuinely primes immediate interest in 1978 and 1666, to the point that many viewers will likely wish they could hit “play” immediately on the next installment rather than waiting an interminable week as Netflix experiments with a staggered release schedule. If Janiak and co. are able to keep up the momentum, though, Fear Street might be remembered in the years to follow as a novel experiment that elevated what could easily have been a bland “YA horror” adaptation into one that truly captures a 2020s teenage zeitgeist. Here’s hoping that 1978 and 1666 retain the same vitality.
Director: Leigh Janiak
Writer: Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger
Release date: July 2, 2021 (Netflix)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.