Movie Review – Fear Street Part One: 1994 (2021)

Fear Street Part One: 1994, 2021.

Directed by Leigh Janiak.
Starring Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, and Maya Hawke.

SYNOPSIS:

In 1994, a group of teenagers discover the terrifying events that have haunted their town for generations may all be connected – and they may be the next targets. Based on R.L. Stine’s best-selling horror series, Fear Street follows Shadyside’s sinister history through a nightmare 300 years in the making.

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Despite being titled Fear Street Part One: 1994, Leigh Janiak’s trilogy (also based on the works of R.L. Stine) is centered on the neighboring towns of Shadyside and Sunnyside. The names also speak for themselves, as the former is steeped in inexplicable crime while the latter thrives with role model students and citizens and overall prosperity. However, the perpetrators of Shadyside’s senseless violence also have a history (chronicling a few hundred years) of being well-adjusted and mentally sound members of society that suddenly snap. And while that might sound like Fear Street Part One: 1994 is in the corner of countless white men who get off easy on privilege, and a bad day, for argument’s sake, there is a curse grounded in witchcraft that has its hold over the town.

In what amounts to a glorified cameo, Maya Hawke’s Heather works inside a horror-themed bookstore of the local Shadyside Mall, closing down for the night (a needle drop for Nine Inch Nail’s Closer clues viewers into the decade the story takes place if they somehow haven’t read the title of what they are watching), where a skeleton-costumed person kills her in an opening sequence that has Scream written all over it (Leigh Janiak has also directed a few episodes of the TV show, only enhancing that influence). The rest of the town is convinced the media has it right and that people go crazy, but there are those like teenaged Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) who believe the stories of witchcraft and spend several hours of the day on one of the earliest incarnations of the Internet talking to a stranger decoding the mysteries surrounding Shadyside. Amusingly, the Internet is portrayed as a place to get the actual truth, you know, before people fucked that up royally in our current climate.

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His sister Deena (Kiana Madeira) mainly criticizes him for being a social recluse and nerdy while sorting our emotions over a breakup with her closeted former girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch, who can also currently be seen on Panic). Deena fails at convincing her goodhearted drug-dealing friends Simon and Kate (Fred Hechinger and Julia Rehwald, respectively) to deliver a box of sentimental valuables to her at a vigil for the latest murder held in Sunnyside. Aside from Sam afraid to open up about their relationship, her mother up and moving to the other side of town together also tore the relationship down, so without many opportunities to actually see her, Deena decides to go herself.

Essentially, a massive brawl breaks out on the football field between Shadyside and Sunnyside students (a hostile one at that with threats of killing one another) that naturally pits Deena and Sam on opposite sides. Not only is the relationship crippled, but so is their friendship upon realizing that Sam is pretending to be someone she’s not with a boyfriend and unwilling to stand up against his rough groping. All of this leads to a car crash that leaves Sam having visions and uncharacteristic nosebleeds. After some more squabbling, it soon becomes clear that greater forces at work and if they want to survive, let alone their genuine love for one another, the four of these high schoolers are going to have to work together.

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Without going too far into spoiler territory, all of the legendary murderers have now risen and are prowling Shadyside, and while at first, the proceedings feel more like Halloween or a slasher flick of your choosing, if anything, Fear Street Part One: 1994 is paying respect to the still-to-this-day astonishing special-effects of 1990s classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day. That’s to say, these killers don’t just get back up like Michael Myers; they immediately have their wounds healed up as if they are all the T-1000. It’s also possible that some of this does exist in the R.L. Stine books (also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, these are hard-R movies rather than family-friendly adaptations of Goosebumps), but Leigh Janiak (among terrifically creating the feel of small-town America, which her Ohio background might have helped with) is lovingly having a blast playing homage to the above and more including having characters recite lines from Jaws.

Leigh Janiak also co-writes alongside Phil Graziadei (Kyle Krillen also gets a story credit), and it is the script that is the weak link here, seemingly unclear about what it wants to say regarding everything from the way media covers and handles tragedy to the practically worthless police force on hand here. The Sheriff of Shadyside is Deena’s father, but the cops have so little screen time and purpose there’s no telling what there is to make of the story (and I can’t imagine that changing much since the rest of the trilogy will be exploring different decades and events inside this bigger picture). Thankfully, there is enough heart and charm among all the danger and suspense, whether it comes from the lesbian lovers Deena and Sam rekindling their affection and trying to survive, awkward Josh trying to man up and impress a girl, or Kate and Simon demonstrating bravery even if they will always be disposable junkies to both Shadyside and Sunnyside.

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Just when Fear Street Part One: 1994 appears to be sticking to a modern-day horror formula, major characters also begin to die in brutal ways shockingly. All of this elevates the impact of the cliffhanger, giving this narrative stakes and successfully builds excitement for Part Two, which will be releasing the following week of July 2nd on Netflix. It’s rare to have so little downtime between movies, and I’m not entirely sure I believe this was always planned to be a trilogy (it feels like it could have just as easily been a six-episode miniseries), but I and I’m sure many others will take it. Maybe over the next two installments, it will become clear what the trilogy is trying to say (it clearly wants to say something but is too busy playing metal song after metal song for the first 45 minutes) about killing sprees and violent crime and the way different pockets of society process and react. Some of the killers also receive more focus on others, but I’m also willing to bet that each movie prioritizes fleshing out different horrifying tales, which will likely keep things from getting stale.

Nevertheless, the romance at the center is charming, the characters are likable, and some of the kills are pleasantly and creatively sick. The entire third act is a carnival of bloody chaos ending leaving one desiring more. Luckily, there’s a short window of waiting.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]

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