by Paul Deeter
When I was a kid in the 90s, the culture of horror both onscreen and off was prominent in film and fiction. I was a kid who didn't have the maturity to watch slasher films like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, but regardless I still had access to some of the best horror the 90s offered. The master of my horror nightmares wasn't Wes Craven however, but a man of a similarly spooky name, followed by two ominous initials: R. L. Stine. The same Stine synonymous with, "reader beware you're in for a scare", i.e. Goosebumps and tons of horror series for children and teens alike. While his work precedes Goosebumps and even extends beyond childhood fiction, his claim to fame would be the start to the prolific Goosebumps series in 1992 with Welcome to Dead House, the first issue of a 62 book run that would be followed by a show, an updated book series, graphic novels, games and even two hit movies. The books existed almost simultaneously with the TV series of the same name, which started in 1995. It's a thrill to read a haunting Goosebumps tale and then be able to watch the adaptation on our small screens after school, and before bedtime. Stine's involvement with the show would influence Stan Lee's presence in the MCU films, and homage Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with Stine introducing each story in a macabre but humorous way. With the staggering sales of the book releases combined with the cultural phenomenon that was the TV series, it may surprise you that Stine's Fear Street series existed before the first Goosebumps release ever did.
As I mentioned, Stine had work before Goosebumps but his work with Fear Street laid some groundwork for what made Goosebumps so successful. For example, Fear Street was an anthological series of books that involved the town of Shadyside with its own haunted past, over the course of multiple centuries. Each story established a different set of characters and different horror scenarios per book. Goosebumps similarly is mostly nonsequential, so the occasional settings would be used or returned to by different characters. If a family of four gets hunted and disappears in a haunted amusement park for example, a return to the park would involve a new family with a similar set of rules. Shadyside worked as a town with a mythos similar to a town like Hawkins in Stranger Things, more than just one thing is underfoot beit paranormal or alien or otherwise. With the similarities of horror and random hauntings in mind, Fear Street seeked a different crowd than his other monster series. For example: "While some of the Fear Street novels have paranormal elements, such as ghosts, others are simply murder mysteries. Although the Goosebumps books have a few deaths, the deaths presented in Fear Street, particularly the sagas, are far more gruesome, with more blood and gore." So this series has more to offer for older teens, while detracting from the broader audience of youth readers. Therefore, a film adaptation of a successful but darker book franchise is ample territory for a grown up millennial to even a Gen-Z crowd, with offers of scares for a more mature audience.
To sidetrack, I'd like to mention how similarly the movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark attempted a more mature release from its source material. The original books that inspired nightmares for kids of all ages is heavy and dark to this day, and questionable for a young reader. I think some of my warped interests and personality traits come from these "not-so-appropriate" kids series that I read in the 90s. Although I'd feel traumatized by these tales, the use of writing and creepy ink drawings on paper wouldn't delve too much into violence but instead tell ingenious stories that felt more spooky than graphic. So the 2019 film attempted to bank off the scare factors that made the original so effective, and opted for a PG-13 rating. The kid I was when I read these books would not have been allowed a PG-13 movie, so the idea here was to make something a little too mature for today's kids and accessible to millenials and more mature teenagers. It's not a terribly intense or violent film, but the marketing certainly worked favorably and established itself as "scary enough" to handle adapting these early childhood nightmares off paper. So the thought stemmed from our director Leigh Janiak who previously worked on the MTV Scream series (fitting), is that this teen franchise has grown older just like its audience, and it's prime time, bitch! The Netflix trilogy of this series would capitalize on the violence, S&M and intensity of the books. Janiak is doing essentially what the Scream series took when it premiered on TV: a franchise of promise, and a name to live up to. But Scream is a hugely popular film series, and the show benefits from the recognizability of a killer like Ghostface. Fear Street is a series with a smaller cult following, but this doesn't limit its potential.
And here we have it, the first film of a three film trilogy: Fear Street Part One: 1994. This movie sets off a three-part tale of an ancient evil, a witch that has haunted and cursed the town of Shadyside, Ohio for centuries. Starting in 1994, the films that follow are set in 1978 and the final feature in 1666. There's not a lot of information out yet about just what the next two movies will focus on or who will enter the scene, but going backwards in time we can expect a change in setting, soundtrack and characters. If one thing is to remain the same, it's the witch that apparently perished in the 1600's, and from the stylized opening credits we can see the various murderers and massacres that have occurred over time in Shadyside. To make matters worse, Shadyside sits adjacent to a town of peaceful nature: Sunnyvale. Shadyside is more than cursed, its impoverished and some blame the murders and assaults to its poorer inhabitants. Clearly there's a sense of privilege that exists for those who live on the greener grass, and the movie touches briefly upon the fact with images of vandalism in the schools, drug dealers and poorer income families. This wasn't fully explored in the film, but I liked to imagine the series follows through on this lifestyle, and it draws me into imagining the lore of the small town.
At the center of this town, in the year of 94', we follow a group of likeable young-to-senior high schoolers from both sides of the two towns, as a seemingly unkillable evil hunts them down. The likeable characters are not particularly fleshed out and I can't recall too many names without looking them up on Wiki. You've got your jock, nerdy kid with crush on cheerleader, lesbian love interest... you know the drill. The chemistry here is solid but the actors don't quite sell their roles and feel important outside of their offering of screams and occasional humor. I think my issue with the characters also led me to lose interest in their deaths, of which I won't spoil. I will say the murders in this film are wonderfully wicked. While Scream gutted up its victims with the use of a dagger and not much else, Fear Street takes a bit more from the Friday the 13th franchise, and finds environmental inspirations for its slaughters. Like it promised with the use of Netflix's flexible content-rating, Fear Street is violent. It's got a few steamy moments, but leans less into the "teenage sex ends in murder" and more into "teenage life ends in murder." The mythology of the witch, (named Sarah Fier) plays out cleverly with different possessed entities on their tail, and each set-piece seems to up the ante in the peril of the characters. There's a lot of close-calls and injuries sustained by our characters, so much so that their kills ended in some audible exclamations of "holy shit!" from yours truly. I'm a simple man, I see a group of teenagers escaping a masked madman, I want a little bloodshed. While many movies and series have tried to quench the satisfaction that comes with an old-school slasher film, few get it so right without overcooking themselves than Fear Street. I'd say my biggest complaint gets fixed in the first twenty minutes, there is an aggressive amount of 90s music so packed tight scene-to-scene that it felt like someone behind the scenes was like "we can't let them forget this is the 94' chapter!! Up the Bush!!" (You know what I mean.)
Regardless this is a solid start to a promising triple feature. But without any information on the next two films, we just know the fact is that years separate the tales, but according to the stinger: times change, evil doesn't. The stinger gives us a peek at some sequences in the next entry, a couple familiar acting faces and also a very Camp Crystal Lake-esque setting. What's great about Fear Street Part One: 1994 is that you can detach it enough from the idea of two other entries, at least at this point I can, that my expectations for 78' won't ride entirely upon what 94 had to offer. I'm hoping not just for a different soundtrack, but a different feel and style. I hope after all three are out, (the next two are separated for the next two weeks), we can still appreciate 94' as a loving and bloody homage to the era that inspired it, and not just part one to an extended series. It already feels like a classic to me, and I hope time will reflect that to future generations of viewers as well.