by Tyler Wanke
R.L. Stine is an icon to an entire generation of children. His Goosebumps series is often credited as the first true introduction to horror for many children including myself. Yet, Stine is more than the Goosebumps author. Born Robert Lawrence Stine (His first and middle name honorably homaged in the opening scene as the author of various horror novels in the store), he has been frightening children for the better part of four decades through various series and stand-alone novels. Other than Goosebumps, his most famous work has been the Fear Street series aimed at an older teenage audience.
I never got into the Fear Street novels myself, but I always remembered the pulpy book covers in bookstores next to the Goosebumps section. Like Goosebumps, Fear Street took influences from all over the horror genre and crafted a universe of creepy stories that could stand on their own just as well as they fit into a larger universe. Fear Street capitalized on this idea more than Goosebumps ever did by giving most of the novels a shared setting of Shadyside, a cursed town with a horrific past.
Yet again unlike Goosebumps, Fear Street has never had a true adaptation other than an ABC pilot episode in the late 90s. Then, it was announced that Fear Street would live on through a trilogy of feature films all centered around the history of Shadyside set in the 1990s, 1970s, and 1660s. Better yet, all the films would be R-rated Horror films, opening up Stine's universe beyond its TV-Y7 home.
Starting with 1994 and working backward, Fear Street establishes its setting. Shadyside is the ugly duckling to Sunnyvale, a richer and safer neighboring community. Shadyside has been dubbed the murder capital of the United States due to its history of serial killers within its borders. This dark history can be traced back to the 1660s when a witch by the name of Sarah Fier put a curse on the town before being executed.
Now, the curse is affecting Deena Johnson and her friends. After a string of murders at the local mall, Deena, her brother Josh, and friends Kate and Simon begin to piece together the legends of their town in order to have a fighting chance against a seemingly unstoppable force.
It is so clear that the creators of Fear Street went into this planned trilogy with a plan. Even though that plan is working in a reverse order, by the end of the film, the viewer can start to see where the series is going, but one of the biggest hindrances of the 1994 installment is that it is too focused on being a stepping stone to later installments. Instead of taking the time to explore the setting and characters, we spend what seems like half the film setting up or alluding to other events. Because of this, none of the characters feel developed enough and when some of them (not mentioning who) meet their gruesome fates, I was left more confused than shocked. Even the still living characters didn’t really mourn the loss of their friends.
I was already sold on the idea of a trilogy of films, yet the filmmakers are clearly building to a second and third film throughout the first film's runtime. It’s a shame because, from the opening moments, the film oozes a unique style rooted in classic 90s slashers. The entire opening scene is the ultimate love letter to the opening of Scream. That is only one example. The film is clearly wearing its influences on its sleeve for better or worse, as it seems like all these films are doing.
By the end of the first film, we have a clear path of where we are going. Fresh off the tragedy in the supermarket finale, Deena and Josh seek out a possible key to understanding the curse plaguing their town. The pair seek out C. Berman, a troubled woman who is one of the few survivors of the 1978 Camp Nightwing Massacre. Through flashback, Berman recounts how the curse destroyed her, her sister, and her relationships with those around her. By the end of the film, Berman provides a pivotal clue that cracks the mystery wide open and setting up the ultimate answer to the question: Why is Shadyside cursed?
I was much more enamored with the second film in this series, Fear Street Part Two: 1978. It’s given far more room to explore its setting and influences. This film is deeply rooted in the summer camp horror films of the late 70s and 80s. Sleepaway Camp, The Burning and especially Friday the 13th were on the minds of the filmmakers with this installment. The characters are just as good as the first installment in terms of development and interest. We even get to see the familiar face Sadie Sink of Stranger Things fame as the main star. Sink’s performance does elevate the film and elevates the rest of the already stellar cast around her.
Just like the first film, the kills are plentiful and does a great job creating an atmosphere that drives the viewer back in time. The film is chock full of not just references to other horror films, but to other fun aspects that root the film in the 1970s while still feeling like the nostalgic young adult horror that Stine specialized in. Yet, the biggest difference that makes 1978 stand out over the 1994 installment is that it is better at striking a balance between creating a unique story that can stand on its own and furthering the overall narrative of the trilogy. The end of the second film sets up an “all ends here” narrative that has me excited for whatever the end of this trilogy brings.
As you can tell by my tone in the above few paragraphs, I’ve been writing this piece as I see the films. So by the time I started Fear Street Part Three: 1666 I had reviewed the films mostly on their own merits. After watching 1666 I will not only speak to my thoughts on that particular film, but on how it wraps up the trilogy as a whole. So to start out, 1666 does suffer some of the problems the previous films have, but it is successful at giving this trilogy built on a multi-year journey through time a satisfying finish.
The second film ends by setting up a trip back to 1666, the year the Shadyside curse started. Deena, Josh and C. Berman (revealed to be Ziggy from 1978) succeeded in reuniting the hand of Sarah Fier to her body. But, instead of the curse being over, Deena is transported back in time and, through the eyes of Fier, unlocks the secret to why Shadyside is really cursed.
Unlike the other 2 installments, The influences are a tad harder to pin down mainly due to the split in time. In a major surprise, the film actually pivots halfway through. Even though the film is titled 1666, by the end of the film we get a “Part 2” to the 1994 installment. The filmmakers clearly wanted to end the series where they started it, but doing so is a double edged sword. In finishing the series back in 1994, we never get to bask in the 1666 setting. This is disappointing because the influences like The VVitch, The crucible are interesting to explore. Even some of the film's deeper themes of tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community rooted through McCarthyesque (literal) witch hunts is incredibly fascinating. Yet, the film abandons these ideas too quickly in order to wrap up the trilogy in 1994.
To be fair, this really changes my viewpoint on the 1994 installment, and, through another viewing, may make it a stronger installment overall. The twist that occurs at the midpoint of this film is awesome, and the Home Alone style final showdown at the mall is a hell of a lot of fun. I really wish we had a whole film set in 1666, but as an overall experience, I like this film as a (potential) wrap up to this Fear Street Story.
Overall, this is a pretty great streaming experiment. Instead of creating a traditional tv show, Director Leigh Janiak managed to craft a miniseries worth of content into a trilogy of feature films. Taking influences throughout the entire history of Horror cinema and even from her husbands fellow Netflix show Stranger Things, Fear Street is a wonderful if imperfectly crafted ode to the man who got an entire generation interested in horror, with the best part being that its made for those nostalgic millennial fans who are now adults and ready to relive their childhood experiences with the all the blood and guts of the adult films they are used to. Fear Street is a fantastic example of how streaming can break traditional interpretations of what a media franchise can be.