What is scarier: witches, ghosts, and supernatural possession, or, the possibility that you could grow up not being true to yourself? That very YA question is at the heart of filmmaker Leigh Janiak’s three-film adaptation of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street novels, the first of which, Feart Street Part 1: 1994, hits Netflix on July 2, while Part 2: 1978 drops on July 9 and Part 3: 1666 premieres on July 16. The films will be somewhat interconnected, and if 1994 is any indication, each will also be inundated with “Hey, we’re in this decade!” fashion and musical cues. Is the approach as irritatingly cheeky as the third season of Stranger Things, in its slavish mimicry of the ’80s aesthetic without any accompanying insight? Thankfully, not yet. And I suppose I cannot complain about Nine Inch Nails and Garbage needle drops too much. But be aware that Fear Street leans very much on recognizable nostalgia to build a sense of place—hell, the movie opens at a mall!—before getting into the bloody business at hand.
A la Scream, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 begins with a slightly-higher-tier actor being killed off in a brutal, awful way. Unlike Scream, the murder of that individual and seven other people at the local Shadyside Mall is sort of met with a shrug. Shadyside’s citizens are used to this kind of violence; there’s a mass murder incident practically every few years. (Sounds like regular ol’ America to me!) Is the town cursed? Legend goes that decades ago, a local woman named Sarah Fier was accused of witchcraft, ostracized by the town, and then condemned to hell. Nursery rhymes share the rest of the story: “She reaches from beyond the grave to make good men her wicked slaves … by cutting off her cursed hand, she kept her grip upon our land.” It’s Fier’s influence, some say, that has kept Shadyside in economic stagnation, has turned so many of its citizens into killers, and has earned it the nickname Killer Capital, USA.
Next door, though, is Sunnyvale, which in a mimicry of Pawnee/Eagleton from Parks and Recreation, hasn’t had any violent crime in 30 years, is clean and tidy, and is populated with palatial estates and crisp white mansions. Shadyside high school student Deena (Kiana Madeira, giving off strong Faith Lehane vibes) hates the place, its people, and her ex Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) for moving to Sunnyvale. Everyone else at school, though, is preoccupied with amping up the Sarah Fier mania, and maybe Deena’s love problems aren’t the highest priority!
So, there’s a weird, darkly gleeful energy hanging over Shadyside when the band, of which Deena was a part; the cheerleaders, including Deena’s friend Kate (Julia Rehwald); and the football team, including mascot Simon (Fred Hechinger), are all forced to attend a vigil held by Sunnyvale before a big rivalry game between the Sunnyvale Devils and the Shadyside Witches. Maybe it’s that latent hostility that causes a major fight between the teams after Deena sees Sam making out with some guy, and escalates when a couple of Sunnyvale players and Sam chase down the Shadyside team bus. An accident happens, and then something weird also happens: Deena and Sam get nosebleeds at the same time, and Sam ends up accidentally crawling onto Sarah Fier’s bones—and activating a curse. Sam saw a vision of Sarah and disturbed her resting place, and now Sam needs to die.
All of this information comes from Deena’s little brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), a murder-head who has deeply researched the Sarah Fier story, is a frequent poster in the Shadyside Killers chat room, and believes that every single one of the murderers who have terrorized Shadyside since Sarah’s death were possessed by her. The Skull Mask Killer that just caused such devastation at the mall; the Camp Nightwing Killer in 1978, who attacked a summer camp with an axe; Ruby Lane, a vengeful young woman who killed her cheating boyfriend in 1965; a milk-delivery guy who killed his customers; a child who killed its parents. They all go back to Sarah, and now that Sam accidentally touched Sarah’s bones, they’re after her.
Deena had been furious with Sam, angry that Sam wasn’t out and convinced that Sam moved to Sunnyvale to start a new life away from Deena, but seeing the person she loves in such danger changes her mind. Deena leads Kate, Simon, and Josh as they mobilize to protect Sam, busting her out of the hospital—where the Skull Mask Killer shows up to very brutally kill Sam’s new boyfriend and the nurses who were selling Kate pills to deal as a way to save money for college—and going to Sheriff Nick Goode (Ashley Zukerman) to tell him what’s going on. When Goode doesn’t believe them, they decide to trick the supernatural killers into following a trail of Sam’s blood to the high school. But exploding the entities doesn’t work; Josh watches the clumps of black goop that once were the killers reform again into the killers. The only way to stop them following Sam is to kill her, which the teens decide to do at the grocery store where Simon works—and, eventually, where Simon dies. He gets axed by the Camp Nightwing Killer. Kate gets pushed through the bread slicer by the Skull Mask Killer. And although Deena successfully drowns Sam after their initial plan to have her overdose on some of Kate’s pills, theoretically breaking the curse, Deena, Sam, and Josh are devastated by the deaths of their friends. (RIP to Sam in particular, who was played by Hechinger with the same kooky, young-Michael-Pitt energy he brought to The Woman in the Window. His “Suck it, pig” when Sheriff Goode tries to interview him is a screengrab for the ages.)
To add insult to injury, the media spins the grocery store deaths by painting Kate and Simon as drug-addicted losers and “junkies” who are “to blame for everything” and who succumbed “to the quick cash of drugs.” “Fits the narrative, right? Nice and neat,” Deena seethes. What I don’t exactly understand about this is how Kate being pushed through a bread slicer and Simon getting axed in the head are brushed off as drug-related deaths, but I’m assuming that Part 1 is resting here on the fact that we’ve already accepted Shadyside as a place where people accept awful things happening all the time. And at least the curse is broken—right? Maybe not. Sheriff Goode, who didn’t seem to believe Deena and Sam’s story about who really committed the hospital murders, leaves a secret note for someone saying “It’s happening again”; he clearly knows more than he’s letting on. And C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), the only survivor of the Camp Nightwing attacks—and who died to escape Sarah, which was where Deena and Josh got the idea to do so with Sam—calls Deena to thoroughly reject her idea that Sam is now safe. “You haven’t stopped her. You can’t. She makes the rules. … She’ll find a way. She’ll come for you.”
That’s pretty spooky! As is the fact that Sam goes in one second from cuddling with Deena while listening to a mixtape to a pallid, snarling, uncontrollable zombie who stabs Deena and tries to kill her. How can Deena and Josh break the curse and free Sam from this possession? What else does Sheriff Goode know? “The only thing that made him go crazy is this town,” Deena had said about the Skull Mask Killer, and maybe that’s true. But how has Sunnyvale escaped so unscathed all this time? A lot of questions leading into Part 2, which moves our story back in time to 1978 to the Camp Nightwing attack. (While Part 1 is clearly an homage to Scream, Part 2 is going full Friday the 13th). Any guesses on the needle drops? I’m assuming Netflix has Led Zeppelin money.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994is streaming on Netflix as of July 2.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix