Premier YA horror writer R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books were given a witchy Netflix slasher overhaul for a three-week, three-movie event in July of 2021 – here’s how it unfolded…
FEAR STREET: 1994
“Face the evil.”
Director/Writer: Leigh Janiak / Writers: R.L. Stine, Kyle Killen, Phil Graziadei / Cast: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Jeremy Ford, Maya Hawke.
Body Count: 8
I read some Point Horror when I was younger, but had never heard of Fear Street – although R.L. Stine’s name was well known in the Young Adult chiller territory. Thus, I wasn’t able to comprehend the excitement when this Netflix trilogy was announced (having been shot in 2019 and intended for a theatrical release but delayed due to Covid). It’s no problem, there’s been plenty of horror I’ve been alien to that’s turned out fine. Rather big spoilers follow.
Beginning with a good throwback to 90s slasher conventions with the now-standard stalking and slashing of a teenage girl (seriously, when will it be a guy?), this time caught as she’s closing up for the night at the mall bookstore she works in. The scene is fun and nostalgic for its era, but sadly it’s also where 1994 peaks.
Credits tell us that the town of Shadyside, where the crime occurred (six other bodies are found at the mall) has a long bloody history of residents flipping out and embarking on killing sprees – from a milkman in 1950, to a girl slashing up her friends with a razor in ’63, the Camp Nightwing murders of ’78, and now this.
Downbeat local teen Deena has more important issues to deal with though. Her alcoholic father is never around and the love of her life, Sam, has defected to neighbouring town Sunnyvale, which is the Eagleton to Shadyside’s Pawnee, if you watch Parks & Rec. Pretty much a case of the haves and have-nots.
News of the murder is shocking but not too surprising for the teen contingent, including Deena’s friends Katie and Simon, and also her nerdy younger brother Josh. It’s all rumoured to be because of a witch, Sarah Fier, who cut off her own hand 300 years earlier before locals hanged her, possessing the minds of random locals into intermittent homicidal rages. As the local rhyme goes:
Before the witch’s final breath
She found a way to cheat death
By cutting off her evil hand
She kept her grip upon the land
But it’s all just folklore right? You’d think, but when Deena inadvertently causes a car accident trying to exact some petty revenge of Sam, the latter bleeds on the land and has a vision of the witch and, subsequently, the skull-masked mall killer who was shot dead at the scene reappears and begins slashing anew, taking out some hospital staff. 60s maniac Ruby Lane then reappears and tries to slash Simon a new one, and finally the Camp Nightwing maniac bursts into the present, swinging a lethal axe about.
The group work out the killers are all after Sam’s blood and do their best to protect her – yes, her, Fear Street serves us up two lesbian final girls. While the all-knowing local Sheriff clears up the mess left by the killers, the teens commandeer a supermarket in an attempt to temporarily kill Sam, then resuscitate her to break the curse… Remember, they’ve not seen Final Destination 2 in this reality yet.
I was sixteen in the summer of 1994 and so have strong memories associated to the sad-panda teen years. While there’s an AoL chatroom and all manner of MTV hits from the likes of Garbage, Sophie B. Hawkins, Portishead, and Bush, that’s about as nostalgic as it gets. The teens not having cellphones is the only other tell tale sign of the times. Marco Beltrami’s score does successfully lend a Screamie throwback to events though.
The pacing is also awkward, after the opening kill, there’s a long, long wait until anything horror-related happens again and the murder sequences come in short blitzes, leaving the film vulnerable to tedious drama, as Deena mopes about her relationship issues, and the group very slowly concoct their plan. An impressive chase-and-kill involving a bread slicer is harsh and also too little too late. But the main problem for me lay with the uninteresting or simply unlikeable characters.
I should note I was recovering from Covid the week this came out, so maybe I was tripping on meds.
FEAR STREET: 1978
“Find the truth.”
Director/Writer: Leigh Janiak / Writers: R.L. Stine, Phil Graziadei, Zak Olkewicz / Cast: Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins, McCabe Slye, Ted Sutherland, Chiara Aurelia, Gillian Jacobs, Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Michael Provost, Drew Scheid, Jacqi Vene, Sam Brooks, Jordana Spiro.
Body Count: 11
At the end of 1994, Deena and Josh have subdued a possessed Sam and seek out help from the survivor of the Camp Nightwing massacre, ‘C. Burman’, who lives a paranoid, secluded existence with her dog in Shadyside.
We flashback to the summer of ’78 – when I was born, coincidentally – where a summer camp unites the snobby Sunnyvalers with the born-losers from Shadyside, who are aware of the curse that hangs over them, even if they don’t take it particularly seriously.
At the centre of this is Ziggy (the flame-haired Sink, from Stranger Things), who is repeatedly tormented by the nasty girls of Sunnyvale, who call her the witch. Ziggy’s older sister, Cindy, is a counsellor this summer, and strives for perfection in everything she does, much to the annoyance of her younger sister, and ex-BFF Alice, who is the requisite drugs-n-sex character we’re sure will be killed off early into proceedings.
Unlike Deena, Ziggy’s unapproachable, foul-mouthed nature is excused by the treatment of her by other campers, who are unrelenting in their torment and even try to hang her from the very tree Sarah Fier was lynched from 312 years earlier. Nevertheless, she attracts the eye of Nick Goode, future Shadyside sheriff, and plots a reaction prank on nasty Sunnyvale ringleader Sheila.
When the camp nurse, who happens to be the mother of the infamous 1963 killer, Ruby Lane, randomly attacks Cindy’s all-American boyfriend Tommy with a knife, she is overpowered and taken away. Looking for an explanation, Cindy finds an old diary amongst the nurse’s things, which is snatched up by Alice who, with her boyfriend Arnie, leads Cindy and Tommy into the surrounding woods to find what remains of Sarah Fier’s house. There, they locate a sub-basement with a still-burning candle and stones with the names of history’s killer etched into them …including Tommy’s.
Tommy is soon possessed, buries an axe into Arnie’s face, and narrowly misses the girls, who escape through a gap into a subterranean maze of tunnels that branch off from an icky blob that beats like a heart. While they try to find an escape, Tommy marches back to camp, axe in hand, and begins offing Shadyside staff and campers (as Sunnyvalers are seemingly immune to the curse).
Ziggy tries to rescue Sheila, who she locked in an outhouse after dumping a bucket of bugs over her, and locates Cindy and Alice trapped in the cave below the camp. The three girls band together to try and reunite Sarah Fier’s severed hand with the rest of the body, which will reportedly end the curse for good – but of course, various killers are spewed out by the blob-thing in the caves and do their best to thwart any attempts the girls make to set things right.
1978 is a vast improvement over 1994, with more and better characters, a pace and tone that doesn’t shift as jarringly, and great realisation of the summer camp locus – which, let’s be honest, was always going to be a winner for me. The trio of final girls works as a cross-section of good girl, bad girl, and rebellious girl, who get things done while the menfolk flail or fail. The kill scenes feel more at ease with the slasher conventions than before, are brutal without being excessive, and several times they recapture that Crystal Lake early-years feeling perfectly, right down to the music cues.
The legend of the witch also gets the attention it lacked in the first film, where it was treated more as a bit of a convenient background element. It makes sense to ramp it up as the films head towards the origin-third, but it’s deservedly front and centre in 1978, whereas it felt like something of an afterthought in 1994.
FEAR STREET 1666
“End the curse.”
Director/Writer: Leigh Janiak / Writers: R.L. Stine, Phil Graziadei, Kate Trefry / Cast: Kiana Madeira, Ashley Zukerman, Gillian Jacobs, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jeremy Ford, McCabe Slye, Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Jordana Spiro.
Body Count: 17
Laughter Lines: “Little grease and these things go down easier than a Sunnyvale cheerleader.”
Deena reunites Sarah Fier’s severed hand with the rest of her remains and experiences everything she did through her eyes, waking up in 1666 as Sarah Fier – able daughter in the small settlement of Union (where Camp Nightwing and then the mall will later sit). Her attraction to the preacher’s daughter Hannah lands them in trouble when horny aggressor Caleb is rebuffed and later accuses the pair of witchcraft after Hannah’s father gouges out his own eyes and those of twelve village children, including Sarah’s brother.
She manages to flee for a while into the home of Solomon Goode and it’s revealed that he is the one who has made a deal with Satan for prosperity in return for a possessed soul every few years. After a chase, he succeeds in severing her hand and turning her over to the townsfolk, who hang her when she confesses in order to save Hannah.
Zipping back into 1994 and armed with the truth that the Goode family are in fact evil, Deena recruits Josh, Ziggy, and mall custodian Martin (seen briefly in the first film) to entrap Sheriff Goode and end the curse for good.
The finale takes place back where we started at Shadyside Mall with some sub-Home Alone style traps and Ziggy’s plan to “Carrie” Goode and let the reanimated killers of yore do the rest. Of course, things are complicated when a still feral Sam gets free and chases Deena into the cave system beneath the mall. But there’s a great gag with a stab-vest made from taped together YA horror books and a full, satisfying conclusion.
1666 lacks the slash element of the first two for the most part, but necessitates the origins of the tale to dovetail everything nicely – we only really spend about an hour in that period and actors from the other films play characters here for a neat consistency. The feminist leanings around the puritan-era’s ease in blaming a woman for the crimes of a man being exposed are great and it really is girl power that drives this train from start to finish, also allowing Deena’s character some redemption from the unpleasant attributes she was saddled with in 1994.
1978 is the clear winner though, given the advantage of not having to yield to either a long set-up or climax, it had the larger canvas to draw over and a more fun sandbox to play in.
What is also worth mentioning is that Netflix went the extra promo step of setting up retro Shadyside Video Stores in various cities, including Brighton, where I was able to browse shelves of old VHS horror tapes and reach into the rustic toilet for a bag of freebies.
Blurbs-of-interest: Drew Scheid (Gary in 1978) was in Halloween (2018).