The routine renascence of slashers roots from the ideas they represent. Its earliest examples—condemned in puritans’ eyes in their ‘disagreeable’ violence and sleaze—present a somewhat cathartic yet twisted take on sociology, especially in terms of now-antiquated gender roles. The Final Girl is a faulty prototype borne from the minds of instilled misogyny; in slashers, the prudish girls survive to the end, while the promiscuous ones take a knife in the gut. Wes Craven’s film, Scream, famously challenged this ‘rule’, and then some. A hyper-aware subversion of slashers before it, his 1996 film comes down in history as an unquestionable classic in its own right—and therefore able to conjure copycats of its own.
Enter Fear Street Part One: 1994, a glitzy slasher so embedded in the ‘90s it hurts. There’s a whole soirée of tropes it embraces, from the epochal Web 2.0 technology, slightly modded character stereotypes, to the many-a-needle drop adorning its indulgent soundtrack. Perhaps most prominent is the cold open, in which Maya Hawke (Stranger Things), undoubtedly the most recognizable name in the cast, gets the hack early on, a la Drew Barrymore. Redoing a stunt so tied to Scream should raise some eyebrows, but it isn’t like the film hasn’t added anything new to the gimmick. I’d go as far as to say that, on the whole, the film goes beyond pastiche—if only marginally.
Because there isn’t really much of a whodunnit here. The killer from the cold open is unmasked about five minutes into the film. There’s no Mystery Machine to board nor to speak of because, for the most part, there isn’t any mystery. Fifteen minutes in, a young web sleuth named Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) has already cracked the case. Her sister, Deena (Kiana Maderia), has ardent rebuttals, however: she thinks that it’s their forsaken side of Ohio—a town called Shadyside dubbed also the ‘Killer Capital’ of the United States—that’s making its townsfolk go murder-crazy.
This, to me, is the most interesting part of this film. There’s something nasty and twistedly simple to persistent evil, like Michael Myers in Halloween or whatever ‘it’ represents in It Follows. The latter comes from the exhaustive line of recent cerebral horror. And while most of these entries are welcome (like Get Out and Hereditary), the rest are just horror films where horror is a metaphor, without much else to say about the ideas they bring up. Even A24, the biggest importer of such films, has submitted to the kitschier tendencies of the genre with its latest offering, False Positive. In Fear Street ‘94, a curse is just a curse. Horror is just horror.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially not with someone like Leigh Janiak at the helm. She directs and co-writes all entries to the three-part Fear Street film series, programmed entirely on Netflix in a span of three Fridays. And although Janiak crafts a competent, refreshingly no-frills Creepshow in 1994, it isn’t without faults. Based on a series of young-adult (tween?) chillers from R. L. Stine, the screenplay is messy and seemingly unsure. The inciting incident ultimately feels like an excuse to do a sample showing of the baddies in the world of Fear Street, some of which we’ll presumably see in the next installments, but none of which are noteworthy beyond being stand-ins for the era of horror cinema they each represent.
The characters are interesting, at least; the side characters, more so. Take Kate (Julia Rehwald), a pragmatic, headstrong overachiever that’s likely the product of their oft-trambled-upon town. Running for valedictorian, Kate is the last person one would imagine to break bad with Simon (Fred Hechinger), a stoner with easy access to over-the-counter drugs. Their conflicts and goals are what the film should have anchored on, rather than those of the main character, a queer lover scorned for being left behind. It’s tough to root for Deena, a manipulative borderline-abusive partner to Sam (Olivia Welch), who had to move out of Shadyside as a result of her parents’ divorce. After a particularly enraging scene set at an inter-town vigil, it’s clear how unfortunately far off the writers (Janiak and Phil Graziadei) have missed their mark on these particular characters.
Much like the queer romance, a sudden, last-minute burst of violence feels tacked on. One can’t discount the ingenuity of the kills, but what end do these character deaths serve? More than anything the film ends up feeling like it had to turn full-on pander mode—to the gore-starved audience, to the representation-starved progressive, and straight-up-horror-starved fans of the genre. One can only hope (this writer included) that Janiak has greater plans for her century-spanning epic. I’m holding my breath.