by Paul Deeter
This is Part Two in the trilogy of the Fear Street films, and the second review I've covered on the trilogy as well. For a contextual introduction to the background and source material of the series, along with my personal experience in 90s horror nostalgia click here for Part One.
It's time to go to camp! How's that for a creepy omen of scares and slashers to come? Where most camps reek of teenage hormones and sweat, Sean S. Cunningham would famously (and infamously) mix the stench of blood into the mix and establish camp as an opportunistic hunting ground for the unfaced boogeyman. So many elements of future horror films would be established from the uber-hit Friday the 13th an original horror slasher film that would go on to franchise 11 additional entries, a show and even a video-game. Surprisingly, however is that despite the incredible influence the film had on movies like Sleepaway Camp (1983) and Cabin Fever (2002) for example, the actual critical response of this film remains divided. 40 years after the original horror classic, critics still argue for and against the film's odd politics regarding young sexuality and its penchant for ultra-violence in comparison to other horror films of the era. Regardless, Friday the 13th is a classic film in my opinion, one of my favorites and with a couple of incredible underrated sequels to boot. (Here I argue the validity of Jason X which is widely considered a Voorhees bomb). The influence of Jason Voorhees is undeniable, even though the original film would focus the murders on Jason's mother.
Yet so many elements that would go into slasher films to come are very rote and familiar to those fans who grew up with Jason's movies. There's always a few notes to expect, splashes of humor and douses of teenage horniness. Specifically the latter would cause some of the genre's biggest conversations:
"Film scholar Williams views Friday the 13th as "symptomatic of its era," particularly Reagan-era America, and part of a trajectory of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Race with the Devil (1975), which "exemplify a particular apocalyptic vision moving from disclosing family contradictions to self-indulgent nihilism."
The film contradictorily exposes us to lots of S&M and voyeuristic shots of female nudity, while reminding us that these same sexual characters will be punished for their un-Christlike behavior! I may be looking too far into it, but I do think that time has allowed Jason and his films the cult-following and modern appreciation it deserves for it's (hehe) campiness. It's supposed to be fun, the murders get creative and heck, sometimes it's okay to root for the villain. Do Nightmare on Elm Street fans dwell on the fact that Freddy Krueger was a child murderer in his past life? Not when it comes to the enjoyment of screaming "it's prime-time, bitch!" and shoving a girl's head through a TV.
Let's get back to Fear Street. After the positive response the initial 90's flashback entry gave us, the stakes were very high for Fear Street Part Two: 1978, as the stinger preview gave us a glimpse at a masked axe-wielding murderer. Specifically, the trailer promoted a shot that's almost identical to Friday the 13th: Part Two, a man looming over the camera wearing a bag-sack for a disguise. That specific disguise would be the outfit of Jason's pre hockey mask, a detail some casual fans forget only came into play in Friday the 13th Part III. The trailer also mixed in spooky shots of peril involving young campers and also the introduction of fan-favorite Sadie Sink (of Stranger Things fame) as our young lead. The promise was high, and I can confirm it paid off.
1978 is bolstered by the dynamics of the two sisters in their lead (Sadie Sink as Ziggy and Emily Rudd as the older Cindy) and their distance from each other emotionally while living in the same camp. Cindy introduces the movie as a grown up victim of the camp played by Gillian Jacobs, and 1978 is told from the perspective of her recollection of the witch's curse, to the survivors of 1994 (more on that later). In 1978, Ziggy is wild and reckless, she thieves to get by even though she is vilified by the preppier campmates. Ziggy and Cindy are both pushing away their past familial trauma, but Cindy is masking her pain by pretending everything is fine and clean, even freaking out when any stain touches her perfect new t-shirt. They no longer have enough in common to connect, at least until the film gets rolling. Cindy's boyfriend Tommy (McCabe Slye) is also a pretty clean and wholesome partner, until he gets attacked (and cursed?) by the creepy camp's nurse. She moans of danger to come before being carted away on the crazy mobile. Cindy is also dealing with her estranged friend Alice, who's drugged out and wild-spirited nature is a past Cindy left behind. Things get spooky fast and the curse goes enough to Tommy's head that eventually he is overcome by the spirit of the fabled witch of the camp, and takes an axe to the face of Alice's boyfriend (sorry Arnie). The narrative of the story splits in two like Arnie's head, following Ziggy and her adventure as she connects romantically with a young Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland) who would eventually be the sheriff in the 1994. This sure is a lot of character establishment, but each player in this story has an effect on the outcome of the villain and setting the context for the first entry in the trilogy. I'd say that Fear Street Part One: 1994 is a good film filled with forgettable parts, and the deaths of some of the characters at play are more for show than character development.
So once the axe starts swinging and zombie-Tommy gets to work, it feels like there's more at stake then before. Critically speaking, the movie garnered a higher 89% Rotten Tomatoes response to the first film, which is appropriate. The film really steps up the talent in the performances, specifically Ziggy and Cindy, and the horror and bloodshed remains up to par with the first one. Sure there's no head through the meat-slicer supermarket scene, but we get our fair share of violence here. I think that's what impresses me about the evidently positive response, horror movies like these normally get buried in criticism due to their violence and ironically this film holds a higher tomatometer than any Friday the 13th feature. I wouldn't say this film quite holds a candle to say Friday the 13th Part II or Part IV. But it does lovingly homage both of them, and it also improves on the genre in a few distinct ways. The violence is all here, but the film knows when to pull away from the gratuity. The film impressed me by going so far as axing younger kids which is shocking stuff for sure, but the movie never shows those kills, for good taste. Additionally, there's a couple of brief sex scenes but featuring male instead of female nudity! I love that, more films should do that! Outside of a few other distinctions, we still get a visually loving recreation of the original Camp Crystal Lake renamed Camp Nightwing for the canon of the film.
Tonally, what works so well about Part Two is the feeling of Spielbergian love of adventure and discovery as the campers go from evading the murderer to discovering a literally beating heart under the campground. Sadie Sink isn't the only connection to Stranger Things this whole movie has; the whole film feels like an 'extra-special' full-length episode of that series. The presence of an overarching evil matches the fear of the unstoppable slasher, and the movie reminds us that this is part of a larger story, cohesive with the character of the witch, (don't forget that the last film is titled Fear Street Part Three: 1666). With plenty of gruesome kills, close shot-by-shot homages to previous slasher films and a real sense of confidence, 1978 feels like it will be the classic of the three, without yet seeing the last one. I won't dive too deeply into spoilers, but the film's conclusion throws a few twists at us and adds context to the first movie. Whether or not 1666. sticks the landing, it's clear Leigh Janiak has made her mark as a versatile horror director to watch.
And one more to go! Stay tuned for Part Three.