Despite being the largest streaming platform in the world, Netflix seldom experiments in things streaming can do that other distribution cannot. In the few risks they have taken, some have been hits (releasing full seasons of shows all at once) and others missed the mark (‘Bandersnatch’s’ choose your own adventure element). For all of July 2021, Netflix is finally trying something new again in releasing director Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy. Sort of the halfway point between binge viewing and film distribution, one film of the trilogy will be released every week for the next three weeks. In order, ‘Fear Street: 1994’, ‘1978’, and ‘1666’ will be hitting the website. While I can’t speak to the success of this distribution method, as only 1994 is out, I can say I have plenty of hope for it as the first film in the series is fantastic.
The movies, loosely based on R.L. Stein’s teen focused horror books, follow the history of a town, murder capital of the world Shadyside, said to be cursed by an evil witch. The first entry 1994 focuses on teenager Deena, a star making turn from Kiana Madeira, after yet another mass murderer slashes their way through the town, along with her ex, brother, and best friends best friends. They quickly realized the rumored curse is all too real as some of the most famous killers in the towns long history of murder have seemed to rise from the dead and started hunting them down.
As can be inferred from the title, 1994 is a love letter to slasher films of that decade. Most directly it pays homage to ‘Scream’, down to the star slaughtering start to the film. However, 1994 is no copycat. Instead , for every trope it pays tribute to, it subverts the next one. The film has the classic overachiever, the popular cheerleader, the babysitter, and the druggie, but they’re all the same character. Gone are the rich kids running around mansions trying to stay alive. These kids are poor, non white, and queer. The subversions don’t stop there. ‘Fear Street: 1994’ seems like teen scream fare, but it’s gorier than any of those. There’s no slasher fodder either. These characters are likable, well rounded, and whip smart.
Netflix took a risk with Janiak, as she had only one film under her belt before this, 2014’s ‘Honeymoon’. But she pulls off something only horror master Wes Craven had been able to do before her, reinventing the slasher genre after many believed it was all dried out. She balances the tone so perfectly. It remains light and for its teen target audience, but the dark moments hit like a gut punch. I can’t remember the last time a movie made me gasp and sit in stunned silence the way this did. Janiak ensures the movie never once feels dated despite its references and setting. This is a movie made for today and knows exactly what its audience is looking for, down to the sometimes too obvious song choices.
I can’t predict how the fast paced rollout for the next two films will work out, but I can say I’m very excited I don’t have to wait for a year plus to see the next film in this already excellent series. 1978 will be out next week and will surely pay tribute to the beloved classics of its era just as 1994 did here. The Fear Street movies are a can’t miss.