Review by David Baldwin
It is 1994 and another murder spree has occurred in Shadyside. This latest massacre does not necessarily scare anyone in the town – they are used to multiple people dying at a time – but certain elements of what happened bear a striking similarity to a number of other murder cases from the past. Once a group of teenagers begins connecting the dots, they quickly realize they may have become the target of the source of a sinister evil that has plagued the town for over 300 years.
I worshipped at the altar of Goosebumps when I was younger. My parents were not a big fan of horror, but they indulged my interest in the series and its many spinoffs. I collected and read as many as I could, and I bet the majority of them are still lying around in a box just waiting to be rediscovered. R.L. Stine’s books were quick reads and were quite likely my gateway to the horror genre. All of this to say…I read a whole lot of those books and never really gravitated to his Fear Street series. So why am I so excited about the film series? Well, the idea of a connected trilogy premiering weekly felt like an inspired idea that had not really been done before – especially one based on a substantially less childish book series.
I chose the word “childish” in the last paragraph purposefully, mainly because I do not remember any Goosebumps book being anywhere near as thrilling or as viciously violent as Fear Street Part One: 1994 is. It ratchets up the tension from the very beginning, pausing only to introduce characters and ideas before launching from scene to scene at a relentless pace. Co-Writer/Director Leigh Janiak is not messing around here. She is playing for keeps and has no problem dispatching any characters who get in the story’s way in increasingly brutal fashion. I was expecting the film to be violent, but some scenes (including a future all-timer involving a bread slicer) are downright gnarly. Gorehounds will not be disappointed. Storywise, Janiak makes sure to embrace the spirit of the books and the meta-ness of 90s horror (thanks Scream!), and thankfully avoids dwelling on either of these nostalgic elements. Instead, she merely uses them as a backdrop for her story – or at least this part of the story. And while it is not revolutionary in the slightest, it was refreshing to see a queer relationship at the forefront, not to mention main characters that do not fit into generic sexual and racial stereotypes. Though some of the characterizations and clunky dialogue could have used a bit more finessing, Janiak and her team do a great job of recontexualizing the kind of subtext these kinds of movies would have been dripping with back in the day. I just wish she took a little less glee from her soundtrack’s needle drops.
While I think the film could have done without slowing down for the requisite 90s “teenagers are horny for sexual discovery” montage (which does at least end with one of the funniest lines in the film), I think the biggest issue with Part One is how much it hinges on its follow ups. The idea of all three films connecting so intricately is tantalizing and intriguing on paper and will no doubt be a key reason viewers will tune in. In practice however, it leaves a bit to be desired. When the film is not dropping tidbits and references to the past, it is deliberately leaving certain plot threads hanging with no answers and dropping in or merely mentioning characters and vague motivations that I have to assume we will learn more about later on. Everyone on screen appears to be having the time of their lives, yet their characters feel stilted and awkward – as if they know so much more than they let on and do not have the ability to tell us. I can appreciate all of these teases and while frustrating, I do look forward to seeing them (or at least hoping they) pay off. That said, it all comes at the price of Part One feeling glaringly incomplete, with not enough backstory addressed and a cliffhanger that basically screams “Find out what happens next week on Fear Street!” Is this the next evolution of the Netflix binge? Perhaps. Would I feel this way if I was able to immediately hit play on Parts Two and Three? Maybe not. No matter the answer however, it is unfortunate that this film cannot stand confidently on its own.
Side note — if you really want to have some fun watching Part One, try taking a shot with friends (if you are able) every time a character says “1978” or “1666”. Plan for having multiple bottles on hand though. Trust.
As a piece of a larger puzzle we have not been able to complete just yet, Fear Street Part One: 1994 feels incomplete and deliberately enigmatic. At the same time however, it is an entertaining and breezy watch with some fun scares and its fair share of hair-raising violence. I had no trouble flying through this and can only imagine how much more I would have loved it if I had watched it when I was the same age as these characters. Janiak and her team stumble in certain places and more than make up for it in others. While I am not sure how well the next parts will fit into the grander story, I am very excited to see what comes next.
Fear Street Part One: 1994 streams on Netflix starting Friday, July 2, 2021.
Be sure to return next week for the review of Part Two!