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Fear Street Part 1: 1994 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Director: Leigh Janiak(a film by)
Stars: Kiana Madeira. Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr.
The kitschy genius of Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street” trilogy, which the writer-director has adapted for Netflix from R.L. Stine’s young adult horror books of the same name, is that each of its three chapters offers its own full-tilt throwback at the same time as they all bleed together into a wholly modern story. That story — a frothy but fanged tale of cursed outsiders, cyclical violence, power-mad white men, and virtually every other evil that seems top of mind these days — is plenty of the moment in its subject matter, but even more so in its construction.
At a time when the border that separates movies and television can seem like a relic from an outdated map, the “Fear Street” trilogy makes those divisions seem more irrelevant than ever. Here we have three feature-length titles set for release on consecutive Fridays, each of which belongs to a different tradition of horror cinema (some of which share many of the same actors) and all of which appear to have been shot at the harried clip of an episodic production.
And while these film-like things strive to function as self-contained chillers (with varying degrees of success), the serialized nature of the entire saga increasingly seeps through until the trilogy just feels like a fancy way of packaging a miniseries where the whole is a hell of a lot greater than the sum of its parts. An embargo is still in place for the final two installments, but if the Day-Glo antics of “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” are as tonally insecure as its teenage characters and a bit too broad to get under your skin, rest assured that this overstuffed slasher cuts much deeper when it’s contextualized as the latest chapter of an American horror story that’s been in the telling for more than 300 years.
At heart, “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is a slumber party movie par excellence. Making good on the massive potential she displayed in her eerie debut “Honeymoon,” Janiak and co-writer Phil Graziadei exploit the lawlessness of the streaming world to serve up a bonafide kill-fest with bumper lanes on each side (all three films in the trilogy are rated R, but no one is standing next to your television checking IDs). The trilogy gradually heats up like a witch who doesn’t want kids to notice that she’s boiling them alive, but this first episode is both gory enough to convince 12-year-olds they’re watching something dangerous, and also gentle enough not to cause any Satanic Panic in their parents.
That vibe can be felt from the “Scream”-like opening scene, a fitting introduction to the snake-bitten hellscape of Shadyside, Ohio that sees Maya Hawke do her best Drew Barrymore impression as she’s stabbed to death in a mall bookstore by a kid in a skeleton mask. If the local high school kids don’t seem especially rattled by the murder, that’s probably because this sort of thing happens on their side of the tracks all of the time. Shadyside — in stark contrast to its affluent, lilywhite, and weirdly crime-free sister town of Sunnyvale — is known for its outbursts of violence (a news anchor on TV refers to it as “Kill Capital, USA”). That pervasive sense of doom has instilled a certain defeatism among Shadyside’s diverse youth population, who’ve been conditioned to see their lives as dead ends waiting to happen.
A queer, mixed-race, open wound of a girl who’s first appearance is soundtracked to Garbage’s “Only Happy When it Rains” (just one track among a painfully eager mix CD of period-appropriate needle drops that includes Radiohead, Portishead, and “Machinehead” all within the first 15 minutes) Deena is the last person who a Sunnyvaler would allow to date their daughter… which helps to explain why she got dumped the moment that Samantha (Olivia Welch) crossed town lines to go live with her newly divorced mom.
Played by Canadian actress Kiana Madeira, who commands her series-anchoring role with both raw vulnerability and rare confidence, Deena didn’t expect anything better from life in Shadyside. While other kids always fall back on folklore and the restless spirit of Sarah Fier, hanged as a witch in 1666, Deena is convinced that the town itself is what makes people go crazy. Alas, that faith (or lack thereof) may get shaken when several of the most infamous serial killers in Shadyside history emerge from the shadows and start hunting Deena and her friends.
If those friends are more underwritten than a bad mortgage, it helps that they’re all believably young and immediately likeable. Fred Hechinger serves real strong young Jeff Bridges energy as the goofball Simon, Julia Rehwald is a neat mix of prissy and resourceful as the drug-pushing valedictorian Kate, and Benjamin Flores Jr. plays Deena’s nerdy little brother Josh with enough low-key stoicism to hold the movie together even when it’s stretching in four directions at once.
These actors may not always be able to redeem “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” from its rushed and unexciting horror sequences, many of which leave the distinct impression of a skilled genre craftsperson like Janiak purposefully taking her foot off the pedal, but they provide the trilogy with the bedrock it needs to keep building from here. That’s extra true of cast members like Ashley Zukerman and Darrell Britt-Gibson, respectively playing the sheriff of Sunnyvale and a local mallrat, whose glorified cameos here will come to serve a greater purpose down the road.
That vivid sense of “I bet this will pay off later” is unfortunately pervasive in “Fear Street Part 1: 1994,” which is far less effective when taken on its own merits. Janiak seems to have done the math and come to the conclusion that it was worth neutering the scares here in order to lay a richer canvas for the rest of the trilogy to come, and — if you accept the premise that she had to choose between the two — people will soon be able to see that she made the right bet.
In the meantime, however, it can be hard to stay engaged during a neon parade of blood-soaked murder sequences that sacrifice any real tension in order to plant breadcrumbs that people can double back to appreciate later. “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is too busy establishing Shadyside’s cycle of oppressive violence to embrace the threat of its clear and present dangers. There’s so much information to download that major character deaths are shrugged off, key relationships fail to connect (the wilted romance between Simon and Kate is particularly half-sketched), and whatever sense of intrigue the killers bring with them is punted down the line. Between the ultra-saturated color scheme and the sheer density of stuff that happens over the course of these 108 minutes, it seems as if “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” owes more to “Riverdale” than it does any of the slasher films of yesteryear.
Of course, the square-jawed sheriff might be onto something when he says “there’s no peace to be found in the past.” By the time the first chapter of the “Fear Street” trilogy reaches its stomach-churning cliffhanger, even semi-enthusiastic viewers will be eager to find out exactly what he means.