Editor’s Note: This review is mostly spoiler-free.
One of the highlights of my childhood was when my mother would take me to the used bookstore every other Saturday. This is where I would really discover my love of horror before I really quite understood what it was. In the tucked-away corner of the store, you could find the kids section. The kids could chill there while the parents perused the remainder of the store. This corner would be where I’d discover R.L. Stine’s Fear Street novels, with the first novel I ever purchased being The Second Evil (not knowing that it was part of a series within the universe). A lesson in gore, suspense, and tension, these books were worshipped just as equally to me as my American Girl books. So, when I learned that we were finally getting an adaptation of the Fear Street books via the FEAR STREET TRILOGY, I was worried. Adaptations are more miss than hit these days. However, I can happily say that the first part of this trilogy starts both fans and newbs to the realm alike on great footing.
PART 1 wastes no time in getting viewers invested, sprinkling both general horror and Fear Street-based easter eggs in its opening scene. The homage writer-director Leigh Janiak pays to Scream in this opener is massive, but manages to twist things to make it fresh and exciting for the audience. For anyone who wanted to know how ’90s they’d go with the set dressing, we have mention of the defunct B. Dalton Booksellers, the glow-in-the-dark trend all up in the eyeballs, and then some. This leads us into some intense, expositional credits, continuing that glow-in-the-dark visual that embraces the full spectrum of that neon coloring, and sets the ground for viewers to tread on as we start exploring the town of Shadyside and meet our cast of characters.
As the story unfolds itself, the viewer is taken on twists and turns that feel like signature Stine. But, in part due to Janiak’s writing, everything feels very centered and relevant to the way the world is now, even as the supernatural truly rears its ugly head. A curse is a curse is a curse, but what Janiak does is highlight the lines between Shadysiders and Sunnyvalers and how tragedy can shape a community’s makeup when tragedy is just inevitable. We see these attitudes in how it has shaped our own country today and it is worth noting how stories like these, which are more teen-oriented in the source material, can successfully be adjusted to be relatable to any age of audience if handled properly.
Where teen-oriented stories can diverge easily or get too wild for their britches (cough, Riverdale, cough), FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994 is refreshing in how it handles their teen characters. While not casting them as pure as the driven snow, the storyline doesn’t force them into overly adult situations that would be outside of the general scope of believability (again, I have to point to Riverdale). The predominant theme of wanting to do something better with one’s life away from Shadyside is one all will relate to, especially teenagers waiting to enter adulthood. Another thing of note is that the handling of sexuality isn’t, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, handled in an exploitative fashion. In fact, it is presented in a relatable way, where two of the main characters wrestle back and forth between hiding their relationship and being out. While some might wonder why this particular storyline has to be included in the film, historically, it is of relevance since only four years after the events of this film, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being homosexual.
While the writing in PART 1 really captures more of the teen essence that sometimes feels missing from these things, what hammers it down is the cast. While most are still played by 20-somethings, props need to be given to Carmen Cuba for the casting selection. Combined with the casting and the direction provided by Janiak, it is clear that the cast is here to take names and slash some haters. Kiana Madeira stands out with her angsty portrayal of Deena. While Deena is angsty given the circumstances, Madeira provides an extra dose of heart that allows the viewer in. Julia Rehlwald and Fred Hechinger are scene-stealers, proving comedy relief where needed and simultaneously worming their way into our hearts as Kate and Simon. Benjamin Flores, Jr., nails the part of young tech geek Josh and – honestly – was one of my faves.
Where the story does get a bit off-kilter a bit is when the supernatural elements come into play, especially once we hit that second half. To some, it might remind of 2019’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This feels especially so when the gang of teens band together in what will be the second major showdown with the things that bump in the night in Shadyside proper. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad per se. But it will feel familiar. However, by PART 1‘s climax leading into the big mic drop-style bomb that the film leaves off at, the proverbial ship rights itself.
For anyone who took issue with Disney’s most recent Cruella with all the needle drops invoking that period’s sweet tunes, oh honey, FEAR STREET PART 1 is going to make you see red. While some of the songs utilized are from later on in the ‘90s, there’s still plenty to sink your teeth into musically. From Nine Inch Nails’ Closer to Bush’s Machinehead to Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark and Radiohead’s Creep, it’s going to be difficult to not sing along. For viewers who aren’t as fond of the music, some of the song choices featured from an observational standpoint, do seem to help key us into the inner workings of the characters we see onscreen. On a second viewing, it does seem more clear where certain songs connect more with certain characters as they pop up on screen. This is most apparent in a scene early on when we’re watching characters walk through a school hallway.
Overall, FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994 is a great start to this trilogy. It sets the stage, providing plenty of information for viewers to munch on without giving everything away too early in the game. Where the film truly succeeds in setting us up for the next installment is in its cliffhanger-like ending. Sometimes you have those cliffhangers that make you groan when you’re not all that invested. However, with PART 1, from the atmosphere to the performances to the writing, you are going to eagerly want to see the second part as soon as the credits roll. And, if that is not a testament to the quality of this first installment, I’m not sure what to tell you.
FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994 releases globally on Netflix on July 2, 2021.
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