Fear Street: 1978 pronounces its horrors with unusual tact. As an ax-wielding madman staggers through Camp Nightwing, it gets even clearer. While the kids from Shadyside get an ax swing to the face, those from Sunnyvale get to come out unscathed. Having your survival predetermined by virtue of being born on the wrong side of the tracks is interesting and surprisingly mature, especially for an I.P. like this.
Imagine Michael Myers selectively chasing you for having been born poor and unprivileged. Or don’t, every real-life construct is as terrifying as The Shape, anyway. The film’s setting at the rear-end of the ‘70s is far from an arbitrary choice, but it might as well be. Neither the Friday the 13th-esque setup nor the ample nostalgia hardly matters, in that it features a baddie far more indomitable and interesting than the one actually doing the slicin’ and dicin’ on-screen—a life tilted against your favor.
This idea forks into two characters with differing perspectives: Cindy (Emily Rudd), a prudish camp counselor who wants to get ‘in’ with Sunnnyvalers, and Ziggy (Sadie Sinks), a disillusioned tomboy who gets bullied for being a supposed troublemaker. In a game of Sunnyvale supremacy, the former hopes to play by the rules, while the latter refuses to play, to begin with. The writers make great efforts to flesh out the main characters. However, I can’t say the same thing about the supporting roles. They’re often set up poorly as no more than plot devices, doomed to be dispensed and ‘fleshed out’ in a different way.
Unlike 1994, Fear Street: 1978 resists the urge to lavish in nostalgia, at least to a certain extent. Littered with old boomboxes droning 70’s bops and suspiciously tight shirts indicative of the era, the film does rely on its antecedents, but it does so without calling unnecessary attention to it. The Jason Voorhees-like killer is similarly coaxed by a voice from the grave, but instead of hacking at the bodies of horny teens, it takes the grandchildren of a land that’s built upon barbaric-cum-pietistic norms. It’s an interesting approach to an all-too-familiar trope.
This makes 1978 the better, contained story, and truthfully, a story better contained. Writer-director Leigh Janiak seems to have a tighter grasp here, but that doesn’t make her film exempt from the bloat that comes with being part of a bigger Netflix ‘film event’. It labors its ties to the larger story, kicking off with Deena and Josh—the protagonists from the first film—as they break into the home of a C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), one of the survivors of the ‘78 Nightwing massacre. I wonder if 1978 would have been better as the first film than 1994?
Despite its flaws, Fear Street: 1978 is a hopeful step-up from the unsure and manic antics of ‘94. It’s a perfectly O.K. slasher with an interesting perspective on inter-town class and relations. Let’s hope this upward trend carries over as the trilogy wraps up next week with Fear Street: 1666.