A homage to slasher films of yore, of the Friday 13th/Halloween/I Know What You Did Last Summer (70s, 80s and 90s respectively) sort, Fear Street: Part One – 1994 is the first of a trilogy based on the books by RL Stine, directed by Leigh Janiak and retaining some cast members across all three. Divulging which cast members stay the course would be entirely spoilerish but it isn’t too hard to guess.
In traditional slasher style there is a gruesome death before the opening credits, in a shopping mall (natch), where we also learn that the unlucky town of Shadyside has suffered at the hands of weird slasher killers before. Not only is this a case of “it’s happening again” (tick another box) but further reinforcement of the lowly social status of Shadyside when compared to its wealthier, happier and murder-free neighbour Sunnyvale, where, we’re told, their shopping mall has managed 30 straight years without carnage.
Thirty years have also passed out in our world since this sort of film was yanking bloodthirsty teenage audiences off the streets and into cinemas, keen to see what Freddy Kruger or Ghost Face or that guy with the hook was up to now. Maybe “it’s happening again” again in Fear Street, but it’s also happening a little differently. For starters, our gang of luckless teenagers are a less white sliced, more ethnically and sexually diverse crew, though this being 1994 (in the film at least), female lead Deena (Kiana Madeira) is still referred to as a “bull dyke lesbian” at one point, on account of her relationship with Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch), a girl who swings whichever way it’s going. Another thing that’s changed in the intervening decades is that the director is a woman, Leigh Janiak. A noticeable lack of stacked babes in white T shirts may be a consequence of that fact.
All the plot you need is that there is a killer wearing a mask, wielding a knife and seemingly able to disappear at will, so possibly supernatural, some local lore about a 17th-century witch whose unquiet spirit may still be lurking and a sibling duo, Deena and brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr), who find themselves at the centre of it all after a prank involving their Sunnyvale rivals goes wrong. And people dying, one after the other, skewered from stem to stern, aft to fore, whichever way is easiest. Much blood spilled.
In Honeymoon – starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway – Janiak demonstrated that already in her debut feature she knew her way around a horror movie and she’s equally assured here. The big, insistent soundtrack, the sound effect of a knife being unsheathed (zhiiing!) and the gristly, glurping sound it makes as it connects with sinew, bone and vital organs all feature prominently, but this is more than mere homage. Janiak’s camera lurks with intent and the pools of shadows conjured by DP Caleb Heymann, along with editing (by Rachel Goodlett Katz) that repeatedly switches point of view creates an unsettling mood. We’re never quite at ease in this film, except perhaps when Janiak gives us a makeout scene as a bit of light relief.
The cast are largely unknown (depending on how much Disney Channel you watch) but they’re all good, committed actors and the lack of baggage counts in the film’s favour. Jamie Lee Curtis had also done barely anything before 1978’s Halloween made her scream queen supreme.
Unlike John Carpenter, Janiak does not write her own soundtrack, but there is plenty of 90s atmosphere delivered by Garbage, Portishead, Cypress Hill, and (nice touch) The Prodigy, whose Firestarter was inspired by the 1984 horror movie (or 1980 Stephen King novel).
Most importantly of all, this film plays it straight, which you couldn’t always say about Wes Craven, and is determined to be its own thing, a slasher/horror first and a homage to the genre second. Mission accomplished.
Fear Street – get the RL Stine books at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021