Netflix’s ‘Fear Street Part 1: 1994’: Film Review

Inspired by R.L. Stine’s grisly books, the first part of this summer horror trilogy follows a group of teens investigating the cause of strange, bloody murders in their town.

Let’s start with the bad news: We still don’t know when season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things will drop. The good news? We do have Fear Street to hold us over for the summer.

Inspired by R.L. Stine’s gory books of the same name, the Netflix trilogy follows a group of friends as they investigate the secrets behind a series of bloody murders in their hometown of Shadyside. This macabre tale isn’t a direct adaptation of any specific Stine novel, though. Instead, director Leigh Janiak teams up with her Honeymoon co-writer to create an entirely new story, the first part of which lands on the streaming platform this Friday. While it probably won’t have you triple checking the locks on your door, it’s likely to keep you entertained enough to come back for more.

Fear Street Part 1: 1994

The Bottom Line

Fun and a little bit — though not consistently — subversive.

Airdate: Friday, July 2 (Netflix)
Cast: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger
Director: Leigh Janiak
Screenwriters: Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei

Rated R,
1 hour 45 minutes

Fear Street Part 1: 1994 plays it relatively straight with its source material’s tone and mood, honoring the delicate balance between horror and humor that continues to draw generations of young readers to Stine’s work, while also paying homage to modern horror classics like Scream. Even if the conventions are familiar, the film manages to excite thanks to an impressive array of young talent, an appropriately suspenseful score and soundtrack, and a heavy dose of ’90s nostalgia.

Shadyside and Sunnyvale, the neighboring towns in the Fear Street universe, couldn’t be more different. While Sunnyvale boasts a storied past, success and prosperity, Shadyside appears more dilapidated, mired in poverty and cursed with cycles of gruesome murders. The film’s opening montage catalogs a few of them, from a milkman who slayed housewives to 12 people massacred at a now-demolished summer camp. The most recent homicide involved Shadyside high schooler Heather (Maya Hawke from Stranger Things), who at the beginning of the film we see working at the mall with her friend Ryan (David W. Thompson). A few scenes later, he stabs her and eight other people.

No one knows why Shadyside is cursed, but some suspect that Sarah Fier, a witch burned alive centuries ago, cast a spell on the tiny town. Or at least that’s the theory Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) touts in his AOL chat room, where he spends most of his time. He’s Deena’s (Kiana Madeira) younger brother, a kid who can’t look his crush in the eyes but possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of his town’s history and of horror films. Deena, on the other hand, is somber and rougher around the edges. These days, she can be found grieving the end of her relationship with girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch).

Part 1 gets off to a slow start, with a somewhat clunky setup. There’s the feud between the youth of Sunnyvale and Shadyside, which explains why Deena and Sam broke up. We’re also introduced to Deena’s inner circle, including Katie (Julia Rehwald), the overachieving cheerleader who deals drugs on the side, and Simon (Fred Hechinger), a laid-back blond who helps support his family by working at the grocery store.

The real action doesn’t start until 30 minutes in, when, after a vigil for Heather, a couple of Sunnyvale football players start chasing the bus taking the Shadyside teens home. Deena sees Sam in the passenger seat of the Sunnyvale car and in a fit of rage throws a cooler filled with juice (or something) out of the emergency exit. The move derails the car, which swerves into the woods and crashes into the spot where the witch is supposedly buried. Strange things start to happen shortly thereafter, and it’s up to Deena and her friends to figure out what’s going on.

Like Scream, Fear Street Part 1 is aware of itself: The characters refer to films like Jaws and Poltergeist and are familiar with the tropes of the genre. But it’s clear the flick wants to be more subversive than its predecessors, primarily by replacing the typically white, straight people at the center of these movies with those from historically marginalized backgrounds.

It’s exciting to see a lesbian couple at the heart of a genre movie, especially one geared toward teens, but I wish Deena and Sam’s relationship had more breathing room; I’d trade the overly involved set up and opening murder scene for more time with the two teens. Setting the film in the less LGBTQ-friendly ’90s heightens the risk of their relationship, but we never fully understand what draws them together. The same could be said of the other characters, whose personalities only feel roughly sketched-out.

Fear Street Part 1 wants to be a smart film, and in many ways it is. It’s unclear if the feud between Shadyside and Sunnyvale may have started because of the class differences between its residents — but it is definitely exacerbated by them, and Janiak does a very fine job subtly weaving that analysis throughout the narrative.

Still, wading into this territory requires a certain consideration of the tropes you want to invest in and the ones you want to subvert. Does it make sense to center the historically marginalized yet still peddle certain images and developments — Katie enlisting the two Black girls she’s babysitting to help her package drugs; a Black man arrested with no evidence — without giving much thought to how they might be read? These are seemingly minor inconsistencies, but they’re worth pointing out. Fear Street Part 1 is fun, and hits its marks with sufficient flair — I’m certainly motivated to see the next two installments — but sometimes the key to subversion is in the details.

Full credits

Distributor: Netflix
Production company: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger
Director: Leigh Janiak
Screenwriters: Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei, R.L. Stine (based upon the Fear Street Books by), Kyle Killen (story by)
Producers: Peter Chernin, David Ready, Jenno Topping
Executive producers: Kori Adelson, Yvonne M. Bernard, Timothy M. Bourne, Leigh Janiak, Adam Wingard
Cinematographer: Caleb Heymann
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Amanda Ford
Editor: Rachel Goodlett Katz
Composers: Marco Beltrami, Anna Drubich, Marcus Trumpp
Casting director: Carmen Cuba

Rated R, 1 hour 45 minutes