3 out of 5 stars

R.L Stine’s Fear Street is a horror fiction series of books written for teenagers, which was actually a precursor to the author’s more famous Goosebumps stories. There have been rumours of it being adapted into a movie since the late-1990s, initially driven by the success of Scream (1996), but only a 1998 TV pilot called Ghosts of Fear Street materialised on ABC. Unfortunately, it bombed in its time slot and a full series was never made.

Things went quiet for years, until 20th Century Fox started developing a movie around 2015, and in 2017 they hired Kyle Killen (Lone Star) to write a screenplay for a trilogy that Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) would direct. Once filming completed in 2019, production studio Chernin Entertainment ended their production deal with Fox (who had been purchased by Disney) and hooked their wagon to Netflix. And the streaming giant have decided to drop one Fear Street movie each week for July 2021. It’ll tide over Stranger Things fans as they await season 4, I guess.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 (hereafter FS:94) opens the trilogy with a worryingly familiar and predictable sequence, closely modelled on Scream’s first scene with Drew Barrymore, only without much in the way of sparkling dialogue. Maya Hawke practically reprises her Stranger Things character as a bookstore worker in a mall (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the same one from that Netflix series), who is brutally murdered by someone in a skull mask. It’s not the most promising of opening because of the heavy Scream overtones, right down to a few identical shots and almost the exact same score (FS:94 actually shares a composer with Wes Craven’s classic in Marco Beltrami). But, there’s a promising subversion of expectations concerning the killer’s identity, which is intriguing enough to make you stick around…

It turns out that the town of Shadyside, Ohio, is a notorious hotspot for serial killers, in stark contrast to its more affluent and safer neighbouring town of Sunnyvale. And many Shadyside kids believe their community was cursed by a witch called Sarah Fier, right before her execution in 1666. But that doesn’t include Deena Johnson (Kiana Madeira), who’s just broken up with her girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) now she’s moved to Sunnyvale. However, Deena’s computer nerd brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) is more convinced by the popular ghost story, and after Sam experiences visions of the Fier Witch following a car accident, it seems long-dead murderers from the town’s dark history are coming back to life to continue their killing sprees. Is Sarah Fier behind these ghostly returns, and how can Deena and her friends put her soul to rest and end the bloodshed?

This film certainly sounds better on paper, as it’s not half as much fun on the screen. There’s merit to how it splices Scream with an It-style supernatural angle, and R.L Stine’s fingerprints can’t help giving everything a Goosebumps feel to the plot and characters. There’s even a major set-piece in a supermarket that evokes a similar one from the Goosebumps (2015) movie, although Fear Street is considerably bloodier because it’s aimed at an older demographic. So it’s not for children under-10 or as edgy as most teenagers would like, but there’s perhaps a sweet spot if you’re aged between 12-14 and new to slashers. And we all needed a gateway to adult horror, so Fear Street gets the job done with one particularly gruesome kill (which comes as a notable surprise given the knockabout tone of everything surrounding it), and a welcome decision to make our hero a lesbian.

But despite being made as a 20th Century Fox project, FS:94 still carries the whiff of a TV episode with an inflated budget. That’s possibly because director Leigh Janiak doesn’t have much in her filmography, although she rather tellingly worked on Scream: The TV Series (2015-16). So her experience level is that of an up-and-comer being handed the chance for big break, whereas a lot of the movies Fear Street evokes were made by horror masters like John Carpenter and Wes Craven. That means it’s fun but not exactly thrilling in how it’s executed and shot; feeling more like a decent episode of TV that’s been soaked in neon purples and pinks (which is more evocative of the 1980s than the ’90s, right?) Also Netflix have thrown a tonne of money at the needle-drops, probably because the music is the only way you’d notice this takes place in the mid-’90s—beyond the absence of smartphones and a geek being ridiculed for using the “expensive” internet to AIM chat his friends.

However, the fact FS:94 is merely the first part of a trilogy works in its favour. You’re always wondering how this will pan out across two more instalments, especially as they’re titled Fear Street: 1978 and Fear Street: 1666, which is going backwards in times… so presumably the follow-ups can’t involve the teenager characters of this ’94 opener. And there aren’t many adults whose backstories could be presented in the ’78 sequel, as the town is conspicuously empty of anyone beyond the principle teens (a sign of a film having either a low budget or no desire to create a vivid, believable location).

Fear Street Part One: 1994 isn’t terrible but it’s all not great. It will work better for slasher fans who grew up in the ’90s and can therefore enjoy what it’s combining on screen. Or it’ll appeal more to younger viewers who don’t notice or care about all the better films it borrows from. I certainly found it fairly entertaining, with a handful of good moments and decent performances from the young actors. But with such an exciting premise about a witch possessing ordinary townsfolk and turning them into psychos over three centuries, it lacked a sense of menace and some big scares I was hoping for. However, there’s a chance the sequels will be improvements and retroactively make FS:94 seem better once once the full story’s been told.

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USA | 2021 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Leigh Janiak.
writers: Leigh Janiak & Phil Graziadei (story by Kyle Killen, Phil Graziadei & Leigh Janiak; based on the book by R.L Stine).
starring: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald & Fred Hechinger.