E.L. King calls Leigh Janiak's first installment in the Fear Street trilogy a refreshing, queer-centric, and nostalgic 90s era Slasher.
Like every other rabid R.L. Stine reader, the Fear Street novels popular in our formative teen years had us eagerly awaiting the arrival of Fear Street Part One: 1994 (2021) on Netflix. We went in without any expectations, but an assumption that this was something special. What we got was a refreshing, queer-centric, and nostalgic 90s era Slasher and a queer horror triumph the likes of which we'd never seen before—not only did the filmmakers not bury our queers, they were the heroes. The film stars Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, and Ashley Zukerman.
It begins at the Shadyside mall where we meet B. Dalton's bookstore clerk Heather Watkins (Maya Hawke) selling a copy of R. L. Stine's Fear Street: The Wrong Number (1990) to somebody's uppity stepmother. B. Dalton's was in fact a real bookseller established in 1966 that announced its liquidation in 2009 around the time physical books and media purchases were declining. The fact that Fear Street is attentive to these details really amplifies the immersion. The nostalgia kicks in hard as the mall lights dim to the soothing sounds of "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. It was at this moment we were firmly transported back to the early 1990s. Heather runs into fellow mallrat Ryan (David Thompson) who presumably works at Spencer Gifts—those were wildly popular in malls during my youth—and the two arrange to ride home together before parting ways to finish closing up shop.
Upon immediate observation, if you see a fly, consider it a significant moment to pay attention to because something supernatural is afoot. The neon horror opener mirrors the famous opening sequence of Wes Craven's Scream (1996) in several respects: creepy phone calls, a masked Halloween costume, and a killer toying with his prey. Heather and Ryan become another tragic Shadyside headline before the opening credits roll with a full display of Shadyside's sorted history of massacres and a history lesson about the town and neighboring Sunnyvale.
Memories of angst-ridden teen years growing up in the 90s continue to wash over us as "Only Happy When It Rains" by Garbage plays as we meet the film's protagonist Deena Johnson (Madeira) writing a breakup note to ex-girlfriend Samantha Fraser (Scott Welch). Co-writer and director Leigh Janiak, who also directed the body horror film Honeymoon (2014), doesn't give away the queer horror at the heart of Fear Street until we meet Sam at a candlelight vigil in Sunnyvale. Every beat of the film from that point on focuses on their love story, circumventing what the queer community and horror fans have become accustomed to in horror films. We're used to our underrepresented gays dying very quickly, not having compelling storylines, and being tokenized.
"When this is all over, I am gonna take you on a date. We're gonna eat cheeseburgers and listen to The Pixies and make out and have the best night of our god damn lives."
Fast forward to the discovery that Sam is cursed and like a Goonies (1985) adventure, they're all in deep trouble. Deena's younger brother Josh (Flores Jr.) explains that the slayings all over town by the Skull Mask Killer are linked to the hanging of Sarah Fier. This includes the massacre at Camp Nightwing in 1978 which introduces another central character C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs). The town of Shadyside has a dark history of blood-soaked massacres that all started with the witch in 1666. At least, that is what the townspeople have been led to believe including the precocious Josh, "witch nerd" extraordinaire, he is the glue that holds this film together. Without Josh, everyone would surely die in the end.
It's up to this band of misfits, Shadyside's very own Losers Club, to figure out how to break the curse, save Sam, and themselves. The group looks to Josh to help come up with a plan to stop Fier's undead henchmen. The battle of good and evil culminates at the local supermarket with shocking results and a brilliant death by industrial bread slicer.
"She reaches from beyond the grave to make good men her wicked slaves. She'll take your blood, she'll take your head, she'll follow you until you're dead."
Fear Street definitely draws on several staples of the horror genre and that inspiration can be seen in its characters and tropes. We spotted quite a few including homages to Scream (1996) in the opening sequence, the Skull Mask Killer stalking his prey like Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) and the Camp Nightwing killer is a dead ringer for the true crime inspired serial murderer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). The film has it all: thrilling blood-soaked kills, legitimately surprising twists, and a genuinely compelling backstory.
Fear Street Part One: 1994 is streaming exclusively on Netflix.