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Horror fans are bound to have a good summer, considering the filmmakers who are in the mix. But among the list of heavy hitters—Nia DaCosta (“Candyman”), M. Night Shyamalan (“Old”), David Lowery (“The Green Knight”) and more—there’s Leigh Janiak, previously of the indie horror “Honeymoon.” She throws down the gauntlet by offering three movies, based on the R.L Stine series “Fear Street,” with the first installment, “Fear Street: 1994,” premiering today on Netflix. Packed with '90s nostalgia, fountains of blood, and legitimately surprising twists, this initial movie would be strong on its own, but it shows a great promise for the next installment that’s arriving [checks notes] in seven days.
This could very well be a major moment for Janiak, who nods to classic horror but gives us a career to look forward to of her own. “Fear Street Part One: 1994” includes references to “Night of the Living Dead,” the iconic axe-slashing shot from “The Shining,” allusions to “Jaws,” references to "Poltergeist" and more. More specifically, “Fear Street Part One: 1994” is like gorier, hornier Amblin. Netflix undoubtedly took to the series for its “Stranger Things”-like pedigree—as growing teens try to solve deadly mysteries that the adults can’t handle, all in a dreamy haze of nostalgia—but “Fear Street Part One: 1994” is more than its influences or the algorithm it so neatly fits into.
This focus in particular is on a town with a terrible history—Shadyside is infamously known for different murders across decades, unexplained and repressed by the community. No doubt that the low quality of life in this regard has made it an unappealing town (although there could be more emphasis on that), especially compared to the neighboring, immaculate town of Sunnyvale. The two are bonded by being opposites, which includes how Sunnyvale is superior (and filled with citizens who are incredibly smug about it).
Our heroes live in “Shadyside,” also known as “Shittyside,” and they find themselves in the middle of slashing history after yet another massacre. “Fear Street Part One: 1994” has a long-winded way of getting to the chase, so I’ll cut to it: a group of teens inadvertently disturb the resting spot of a witch, who has created, in one way or another, a type of cult of killers over the centuries. Deena (Kiana Madeira) was already seeing someone like the mall murderer out in the distance, thinking she was the target of an unfunny prank. But her AOL-using brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), who is well-versed in the town’s history of violence, starts to connect how the ghost-like figures are part of a pattern. They receive help from laidback classmates Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), who make money selling pills to fellow high schoolers, an extension of their cynicism toward Shadyside. Everyone in the group is terrorized by killers who look like they came from a costume party, but for some reason there’s a special target on Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), Deena’s ex-partner who moved to Sunnyvale and originally inspired Deena to make a bitter mixtape.
None of this comes together without a confident storyteller, and that’s where Janiak’s skills kick in. It’s almost like her style becomes even sharper as the story goes along—at first the ’90s needle drops are aggressively crammed in ("Insane in the Membrane" is jammed next to "Creep"), and the hyperactive editing is busy more than it is clever as it takes us from one frantic conversation to the next. But "1994" strikes a great balance between building backstory and tying it into the chaotic present-day: the mythology settles in, and the movie focuses on lean and extra mean thrills that include a couple of excellent slasher set-pieces in the high school and a grocery store, all with an expressive, playful lighting palette. The most fun parts of "1994" display a strong balance of the brutal and the playful, and yet while its energy is a developing charm of the series, it’s the overall tone created by Janiak that’s the most impressive.
“Fear Street Part One: 1994” offers a few changes to slasher tropes—perhaps most of all that it transparently cares about its characters, these teenagers who just want to get through the night alive and in general have been underestimated. The script by Janiak and Phil Graziadei gives a strong balance to both the moments in which they’re running for their lives and when they are trying to figure out parts of themselves, especially in the arc of Deena and Sam, which effectively tugs at the heartstrings. In the same breath, the series loves the young sexuality of its characters, and doesn’t treat gettin' some as a death sentence, as the commandments of slasher movies are known to do. It also doesn’t look at Kate and Simon’s hustle—selling pills—as a reason they should be punished, but as an extension of their struggle and savviness. All of this enriches "Fear Street Part One: 1994," and makes it more interesting during a tightly executed second half.
And then, as happens in slashers but in a way that feels particularly intense here, the body count suddenly piles up, and the film's terror becomes all that more immediate. It may not be as scary as its cumulative jump scares and wall-to-wall orchestral score hint, but the investment in everyone’s safety is not be underestimated. It’s a full cast of rising young stars, like “Stranger Things” before it, and “Fear Street” gives that palpable sense of having fun while hanging out with them, but worrying that one of them might abruptly die.
“Fear Street” looks like it’s headed to a Crystal Lake-like setting next for "Fear Street Part Two: 1978"—I proudly skipped the trailer for it at the end of “1994,” wanting to preserve any of the franchise’s upcoming mysteries, having already been sold on the series’ knack for a twist, and ability to throw a bloody party. A sneak ahead seemed like I'd cheating myself, even if a seven-day wait feels long enough.
Now playing on Netflix.
Kiana Madeira as Deena
Benjamin Flores Jr. as Josh
Olivia Welch as Samantha Fraser
Fred Hechinger as Simon
Julia Rehwald as Kate
Maya Hawke as Heather
David W. Thompson as Ryan Torres
Ashley Zukerman as Sheriff Nick Goode
Darrell Britt-Gibson as Martin