Film

Review: Part 1 of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street Film Adaptations Brings Scares, but Not Much New in the Teen Horror Genre

Based on the Fear Street books by R.L. Stine (although not a direct adaptation of any one of them) and adapted by first-time feature directors Leigh Janiak and Phil Graziadei, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is the first of three interconnected films (Part 2: 1978 comes out next week; Part 3: 1666, the following week) that center on the dark and violent history of the town of Shadyside over the course of 350 years, a history that may stem from an ancient tale of a witch. The first film opens with the murder of a mall store clerk (Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke) at the hands of one of her best friends, seemingly for no reason and yet also part of a much more gruesome and extensive mass murder in the mall.

Fear Street 1994

Image courtesy of Netflix

The next day, the victims’ fellow high school students find out about the killings and are forced to take part in a candlelight vigil before the big football game against long-time rival Sunnyvale, located in a well-off, prosperous community where nothing bad ever seems to happen, especially when put side by side with Shadyside, where mass murders seem to occur every decade or so, always under the strangest of circumstances. As is often the case in places like this, conspiracy theories run rampant, and young Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) gets on the AOL message boards to discuss the latest murders and their apparent connection to an ancient witch curse. But Josh’s older sister Deena (Kiana Madeira) is too busy mourning her recent breakup with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), whose move to Sunnyvale (only 30 minutes away) prompted Deena to “finish the job” by breaking up with her first to avoid being broken up with (because teenager logic).

An unfortunate car accident stemming from a Sunnyvale vs. Shadyside conflict leads to Sam having a vision of the witch and the unexpected appearances of some of the murderers from decades past seemingly coming after the kids as they get Sam to the hospital. The bulk of this chapter is the kids attempting to uncover both why the witch (through her minions) wants them dead and how to go about stopping her/them. Also in the gang are perfect-student cheerleader Katie (Julia Rehwald), who sells drugs as a side hustle; and smarmy white guy/grocery store worker Simon (Fred Hechinger), the one member of this group of friends we probably won’t miss if he dies. It’s actually refreshing that nearly all of the primary cast members aren’t straight white males; I have nothing against that demographic, but let’s be honest: I’ve seen that movie a thousand times. I don’t think the movie is better without them, but this casting is something we haven’t seen before, and any step toward normalizing that is significant.

That being said, the film has several strikes against it. As you probably gathered from the title, the film is set in 1994, so naturally roughly 10,000 needle drops on the soundtrack drive home that point because you’re only allowed to listen to music from the year the movie is set. More importantly, nothing about Fear Street is scary, even though a couple of the kills are original and gruesome.

Despite having a gay couple at the center of its story, the movie seems utterly uninterested in them as actual people outside of this relationship. When we meet Sam, she’s moved on from the breakup with Deena and is dating a football player from her new Sunnyvale school. Is she straight, bi-, or simply conforming to what her parents expect of her? We’ll never know the answer, because it’s never explored. The kids are types more than characters, simply potential victims rather than fully realized (or even partially realized) people, and it feels like a missed opportunity to really change the dynamic of horror films and give us characters to care about whether they live or die. Still, there’s an energy to this chapter of Fear Street that I hope is present and improved upon in the upcoming entries. 1994 left me wanting not just more but something more substantial than simply a Scream retread with a few more culturally sensitive touches.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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