There are some things that just work better on Netflix. For as much as some films like The Old Guard and The Midnight Sky practically beg to be seen on a big screen, the streaming giant does offer films and television shows that can only work with the streaming method, including interactive films and super niche content that wouldn’t work with mass audiences in theatres. Fear Street, despite being a super approachable horror film, is practically made for the Netflix model. Based on R.L. Stine’s young adult novel series featuring darker and more violent storylines than his famous Goosebumps series, Fear Street is broken up into three separate films meant to be watched in quick succession. No 1-2 year wait in-between releases. No worrying that the film might not make enough money to warrant a sequel. Just a large, unmarketable (by traditional methods) project that plays about halfway between a film trilogy and a mini-series. The film found its way to Netflix following Chernin Entertainment’s departure from 20th Century Studios where the film was originally set up. It’s a fascinating project made all the more fascinating by the films’ hard-R ratings, contrasting starkly to Stine’s more family-friendly image. This, on Netflix, also works because there is freedom to push boundaries while also still making a film truly for young adults, many of whom would not be able to see the film in theaters because of said R-rating.
The project is a fascinating endeavor, and having seen the first of three parts, I can also confirm it lives up to most of its lofty ambitions.
Set in 1994, Part 1 of Fear Street takes place in the town of Shadyside, Ohio, known as “Killer Capitol U.S.A.” thanks to its long history of residents going on violent killing sprees. When the town’s first murder in years occurs, the town and its surrounding area, including the wealthy suburb of Sunnyvale, erupt into a frenzy. Deena (Kiana Madeira), a high school student disillusioned with life after breaking up with her first girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), finds herself, Sam, her friends, Simon (Fred Hechinger) and Kate (Julia Rehwald), as well as her younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), hunted by a trio of seemingly unkillable murderers powered by a supernatural force that has terrorized Shadyside for over 350 years.
In its setup film, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 keeps things relatively simple until the finale, which obviously sets itself up for more bloody goodness in the next two films in the series. It has the vibe of It Follows if it was adapted from a Goosebumps novel, and I mean that as an absolute complement. It’s a clever, fun, and surprisingly acerbic little horror film that has enough neon-drenched merit to stand on its own, should it have had to. Sure, it sometimes does give off the feeling of a project almost begging to be a new generation’s first R-rated horror film they see, but whatever shortcomings come of that, I’m almost happier they approached it this way. It can be a bit predictable at points, but there’s really a magic with this film that does bring all audiences down to a time when horror films were made to be fun, not traumatizing (though I do love those, too).
With that, there are some elements of Fear Street Part 1: 1994 that definitely feel a bit on-the-nose compared to the cleverness of much of the rest of the film. Firstly, the number of needle drops that the film throws at you makes Cruella look like a silent film. It’s used as the obvious factor of the film not taking place in the present day, but wowee some of them are almost comically obvious, particularly in the film’s first half. Luckily the drops calm down a bit in the latter half due to the film actually picking up, but they’re still noticeable, and it can feel a bit lazy at times.
This film also has a bit of a tonal problem when it comes to how the characters deal with some of the brutal deaths they witness, taking almost no sense of shock or trauma with them once the scene ends. It takes away a bit of the emotional heft that other films it’s paying homage to, particularly that of Scream, which really handled it well. I simply feel like if I saw multiple people get their throats slashed and their heads caved in, I probably wouldn’t be so chill about it five minutes later.
But speaking of those deaths…I knew this was going to be rated R, but I didn’t know just how buckwild they were going to go with it. For feeling like a YA adaptation to its core, Fear Street’s candid portrayal of teenage sexuality and drug abuse was almost jarring, but its violence is what expectedly steals the show. I expected blood, but I didn’t expect deaths so gnarly that one even made me elicit a very involuntary cry under my breath because I simply hadn’t prepared for that level of horror. It’s an entirely impressive undertaking that I think really paid off in the long run in setting the film apart from what we know as Stine’s more approachable work while still retaining the Halloween Store spirit of it all.
There are some issues that don’t always sit right in execution, but it doesn’t make the successes of Fear Street Part 1: 1994 any less impressive or detract from how insanely fun it is to experience. It harkens to a simpler, more straightforward era of horror with stupid teenagers making stupid decisions that will get them stupid killed, and I love that shit. It references and homages quite a bit, but paves its own way, with its own identity, that gives the film a new, modern take on a classic genre. I’m incredibly interested to see how the next two films build upon the intrigue set up in this first installment, and I hope that maybe a few of the squeaky bolts can be tightened up a bit to really elevate it to a killer finale.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 available for streaming on Netflix July 2nd, 2021.
Fear Street Part 2: 1978 available for streaming on Netflix July 9th, 2021.
Fear Street Part 3: 1666 available for streaming on Netflix July 16th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.