Shadyside has always had issues. Issues with inequality, issues with neighbouring Sunnyvale and… issues with serial killers. It’s 1994 and horror strikes with a brutal massacre in a local mall. Soon a group of local teenagers become sucked into a spiral of bloodshed and fury as an ancient evil that has plagued Shadyside for generations once again descends on the town. Travel back to 1994, 1978, and 1666 to experience – the fear!
While I was a massive fan of R.L. Stine, I never graduated from the Goosebumps series of books aimed at kids to the Fear Street book series for young teens. But his work still holds a lot of nostalgia for me, so I came into Netflix’s Fear Street Trilogy with high hopes of schlock-y scares, surprise twists, and a nirvana of 90s references. The film does reskin the classic Stine formula for a modern, woke audience but the films retain an innocent, unpretentious penchant for teen drama and slasher gore that’s endearing and entertaining, if unmemorable.
Director-writer Leigh Janiak faces a tough task in trying to create standalone horror films while still tying together a larger narrative. Throw in the need to pay homage to various genre classics and remain faithful to R.L. Stine’s books, and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster. But Janiak navigates these dangerous waters by playing on our nostalgia.
The first film, 1994, introduces us to a group of teens led by misfit Deena (Kiana Madeira) facing the curse. They aren’t the first to face the wrath of Shadyside’s real-life-ghost-story Sarah Fier and her band of merry murderers, but they seem like the only ones that can stop her. Adults in this series are only hapless victims or cynical authorities, giving the film a surreal quality that was appealing in the Goosebumps books. It unshackles the plot logic and helps the film maintain a frenetic pace. 1994 also has a black-and-neon colour palette dripping in 90s nostalgia, giving Scream vibes to the teens’ plight.
The 1978 edition of the Fear Street Trilogy plays like a classic camp horror film, complete with creepy woods, camp rivalries, and an axe-wielding murderer. With a soundtrack rammed full of 70s-rock classics, and retro outfits and hairstyles, the film looks every bit the part 1994 does, but lacks the same nostalgia factor.
The final film, 1666, falls down a bit despite its pastiche of period horror, The Witch. Janiak has the tough task of revealing Sarah Fier’s backstory while wrapping up the larger narrative set in 1994. This makes 1666 seem rushed, with little time to develop background characters or bed in a world that seems riddled with historical inaccuracies.
The plot across the three films is engaging and twisting. Despite the simple and homage-y nature of their nostalgia-driven narratives, the films never felt played-out or repetitive, with plenty of surprises even late on in the last film. 1994 is the strongest of the three, with a slow start more than made up for by a winding and gory climax to the film. 1978 drags a little, and 1666 doesn’t have enough to stand on its own as a good horror movie, but the resolution we get after flashing forward in time back to 1994 for the trilogy’s climax is satisfying and offers a surprise or two.
The young cast of the Fear Street Trilogy show a gameness that is refreshing in mainstream horror films. Despite the teen-driven source material, the roles (mostly) are fleshed out and in 1994 in particular we genuinely feel for the teens’ plight thanks to a strong performance from lead Kiana Madeira as Deena. Ashley Zukerman is also solid as secretive police chief Nick Goode and his own ancestor, while Gillian Jacobs also features.
I might have enjoyed the Fear Street Trilogy more as a TV series rather than a collection of movies. However, this is mostly because I wanted more! Each film offers a dose of horror genre familiarity, with the 1994 edition a standout for its slow-burn slasher nostalgia. Perfect popcorn fare.
The Fear Street Trilogy is fast-paced and entertaining. The films are never more than surface deep but stand on their own feet as nostalgic looks back at classic era for horror. 7/10.