Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy is off to a booming, slasher-savvy start with Fear Street Part 1: 1994. Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak wields her adaptive vision with the precision of Ghostface’s blade, carving through ’90s and ’00s fad imitators who are no match for their superior. Its cinematic DNA might reflect everything from Scream to It Follows, but staying indebted to R. L. Stine’s imagination leaves that fresh new-flick smell. Youthful authenticity embraces the mature themes of a gorier, grislier level-up from Goosebumps, which empowers an R-rating to be more than hacks-to-bits corpses for gratuitous violence’s sake. The balance between meaningful teenage antics, heartfelt underprivileged commentary, righteous victim executions, and an intoxicating ’90s soundtrack never grows old nor overwhelms.
It’s a good thing Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is streamable because it’s going to be many a horror fan’s newest replayable obsession.
Our introduction to small-town Shadyside is through Deena (Kiana Madeira), a broken-hearted band kid struggling with her and Samantha’s (Olivia Scott Welch) breakup—the latter now welcomed into Sunnyvale’s snobby elite. Shadyside is one of those places you never really escape, given its morbid history of repeat psycho killers. The latest? A villain wearing a skeleton mask assails seven in the local megamall, leading to a commemorative vigil during the Shadyside/Sunnyvale rivalry football game. Things get heated between towns during an insensitive interruption, which causes a car accident involving Samantha when some Sunnyvale jocks chuck bottles at Shadyside’s bus. Everyone walks away shaken but alive, which is the good news—the bad news is Samantha disturbs an ancient grave and awakes the source of a three-hundred-year-old Shadyside curse.
Right off the bat, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 flashes awareness by centering on a lesbian romance in “normal” regards because this isn’t Disney where milestone representation achievements are one-off lines in a three-hour-plus actioner. Deena and Sam bicker and pine and furiously return possessions as awkward first-time crushes do in any teen rom-dram, because for all its problems, horror embraces the outsiders. Madeira and Fraser are electric together as jilted exes, then rekindling defenders against supernatural forces. Points aren’t awarded because the two leads are gay, mind you—intentions and genuine LGBTQ+ inclusion speak volumes in their allowances for Deena and Sam to be defined by their personalities, not sexual preferences. It’s never played as [shudders] producer’s note “woke approval.”
Enter Deena’s flanking posse, valedictorian Miss-Perfect pill pusher Kate (Julia Rehwald), and Simon (Fred Hechinger), the slacker comedian who’d probably grow up to be a likable version of T.J. Miller. They’re playing “If MTV made High School Musical” stereotypes and yet are magnetic from their first lines. Simon can elevate the raunchiest self-pleasure gags while Kate is this girlboss, composed shit-kicker in a cheerleader acrobat’s petite package—the glue between Deena and Sam. Well, with the addition of Benjamin Flores Jr. as occult obsessor Josh, the heavyset younger brother of Deena, who embraces his own coming-of-age journey while spitting serial killer facts like Snapple Cap wisdom. These are all archetypes we’ve seen in eleventy-billion high school set slashers before, embodied in a way that’s still enigmatic and packed with resonance. Empathy, engagement, and investment come easy.
Of course, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 isn’t a John Hughes daydreamer (some of those are scary enough). Deena and Samantha—and their crew—are tasked with defeating summoned slasher killers, all infected by the enchantment of local 1600’s legend Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel). A bagheaded sleepaway camp axe murderer, the stabby skeleton mentioned above, and a sexy-crazy housewife seductress all rise from the grave to kill Samantha. The rotating cast of massacre maestros presents a constant danger as they hunt like pieces on a Mixtape Massacre playing board without human limitations (a horror tabletop game where murderers compete for body counts). It’s an absolute blast as Janiak accentuates the feral ferocity of weapons swung with brute force, each villain marked by their signature skill set and presence. The universe Janiak creates in this ’90s horror nostalgia simulation is so rich, fantastical, and soak-in-able—from neon outlet store lights to lamplit slasher attacks scored by ’50s love songs to the smirking sickos flashing switchblade razors.
Horror film studies courses should teach the way Janiak utilizes an R-rating. Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is gobsmackingly brutal when needed, but never as a crutch. An opening knife through bookstore clerk Heather’s (Maya Hawke) chest is a spiteful puncture that pierces the heart of innocence; then there’s what some might consider a lull (sans hospital redecorations). The “Nightwing Killer” and others give a frantic chase, but it’s roughly not until a standoff finale that the Grim Reaper claims a few additional souls in horrific fashion—moments where your breathing quickens because you appropriately care for the kiddos who’ve already survived insurmountable Shadyside odds. Then a piece of bakery machinery is powered on, and one of the year’s unchallenged best-of horror kills produces bleakness, somber undertones, and amplifies that spirit of a horror film that offers no salvation. Janiak proves that slashers transcend sloppy repetition when their core characters can exist outside cannon fodder terms, and the result is as gutting as it is celebratory.
The longer I write about Fear Street Part 1: 1994, the more I’m smitten by a boundlessly entertaining slasher about forgotten generations who fight because they’ve never known another lifestyle. You start thinking, “Right, Scream, we’re still riffing off Wes Craven decades later, here we go again.” Leigh Janiak then laughs in your face for the following few scenes, asserting the promise that Fear Street Part 1: 1994 worships at the altar of R.L. Stine’s adolescent mixture of macabre and magic. An ensemble worth their quirks and compassionate bonds holds their ground against all-star undead maniacs as we root for the home team until a supermarket climax proves there’s depth in performative death beyond crimson practical effects (that rule). One minute our nerves are shredded raw, the next, Deena drops this exceptional monologue as adults and law enforcement—one last time—fail the memories of shining souls lost to a broken system. It all hits so incomprehensibly hard; far harder than any teeny-terror sleepover flick with a bajillion needle drops (Bush, Cypress Hill, The Prodigy, etc.) has any right to expose our gooey insides. Bring on round two, like, now.