Prolific author R.L. Stine is best known for creating the hugely popular Goosebumps series and its numerous spinoffs, but it was actually the teen-centric Fear Street books that helped establish him as one of the preeminent voices in YA horror. Set in the small town of Shadyside, the books follow a succession of horrific events, some dating back hundreds of years, that primarily occur along the titular stretch of road from which the series takes it name. More than 30 years after the first entry was published in 1989, Fear Street finally makes its way to the screen in a trilogy of films that explores the sinister history of Shadyside.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 opens in the most mid-90s of locales: a shopping mall, where a closing shift at B. Dalton Booksellers turns into a gruesome murder scene. Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak is clearly paying homage to Drew Barrymoore’s opening cameo in Scream, right down to the masked killer’s black hooded robe and the slow-motion shot of the murderer chasing down his final victim (Maya Hawke) just as salvation seems nigh. But don’t expect the references to end there; the entire film feels like a love letter to the slashers of the mid-90s, complete with copious amounts of blood and all the requisite character archetypes.
There’s Deena (Kiana Madeira), the notorious “troubled teen” of Shadyside and her nerdy, urban-legend-obsessed younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.); cheerleader and valedictorian Kate (Julia Rehwald), who maintains a surprising side hustle; Simon (Fred Hechinger, The Woman in the Window), the mischievous town burnout; Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), the ex-girlfriend who may or may not be the target of a centuries-old evil force that has plagued Shadyside since the 1600s; and exasperated local sheriff Nick (Ashley Zukerman), who has no patience for teenagers with wild stories about unstoppable killers.
Much in the same way Scream used the audience’s knowledge of 80s horror clichés to subvert expectations, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 leverages many well-known tropes from 90s slasher movies to misdirect viewers, providing a momentary sense of comfort before yanking the rug out from beneath their feet. And although the novels which serve as the film’s inspiration were aimed squarely at a teen audience, rest assured that Janiak doesn’t skimp on the gore, particularly during the third act’s biggest setpiece as our heroes face off against an array of murderous maniacs.
Special recognition should be given to the music department for expertly capturing the sounds of the era, with needle drops from the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Garbage, Radiohead, Bush, White Zombie, Cypress Hill and plenty more. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that a significant portion of the production budget went toward licensing rights for the soundtrack, and in this case, it’s money well spent. On a related note, tapping Scream composer Marco Beltrami to co-write the score feels like an inspires choice, especially given the tone Janiak is trying to evoke.
As the first installment in a trilogy, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 has a lot of ground to cover, establishing each of the main players, setting up Shadyside’s rivalry with the affluent citizens of neighboring Sunnyvale and recounting the town’s ghastly history, including the execution of a young woman accused of witchcraft some 300 years earlier. Naturally, all of these things are connected somehow, and to say the plot begins to feel overly contrived around the halfway mark would be a bit of an understatement. And yet, the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach employed by Janiak and fellow screenwriter Phil Graziadei works surprisingly well, because the film is just so damn fun.