REVIEW: Fear Street Part 1 – 1994 (2021)

dir. Leigh Janiak.

Horror traditions always come in cycles, reflecting and shaping cinematic tastes through different ghoulish lenses. And whilst it’s been a while since we had a slasher revival – arguably not since 1996’s Scream rebooted the sub-genre with its cine-literate smarts – there has been an ongoing resurgence in 80s-baiting material which simultaneously calls-back to and homages culture from the film-maker’s – and audience’s – youth.

This is explicitly the sandbox that director Janiak is playing in with this, the first instalment of her Netflix trilogy drawing from R. L. Stine’s Fear Street books. Stine himself – though usually associated with the 90s – has experienced belated cinematic success in recent years with two (family friendly) Goosebumps movies and an updated TV show in-development, but it is the meta-casting of Maya Hawke (best known as Robin from Stranger Things) in the opening scene here which really cements 1994 as a part of the retro-spookster canon.

Working late to bring an extra pay cheque home, Heather (Hawke) stacks books at the local shopping centre, flirts with another mallrat and listens to Nine Inch Nails afterhours. There’s a few jump scares, and pretty soon it’s clear she’s not alone, a skull-masked killer stalking the shop-floor with a glistening hunting knife.

This sequence riffs so heavily on Scream – from the phone calls and killer’s attire to the use of slow-motion and the reveal – that there are momentary concerns this will be little more than a loving rehash. And whilst it’s true that the pop-culture is laid on pretty thick – there are so many 90s bangers on the soundtrack it feels like a long-lost mixtape – thankfully Janiak, along with co-writer Phil Graziadei, show themselves to be adept at snarky teen dialogue, with some cracking ensemble work making it easy to buy into the emotional lives of the central high-schoolers who soon become aware that something is afoot.

Chief among them is heartbroken Deena (Kiana Madeira), who along with nerdy brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and besties Simon (Fred Hechinger) and Kate (Julia Rehwald) starts to piece together that the most recent attack is not just another horrifying tragedy in the history of Shadyside (aka “Murder Capital USA”) but may in fact be part of a decades-long legacy caused by a supernatural evil. Before long the teens are racing across town, the bodies stacking up and darkness closing in.

It’s worth noting that, whilst Scream is perhaps the most obvious touchstone, Janiak demonstrates a clear conversance with the horror genre more widely (something which looks to be built on in Parts 2 and 3): one moment is explicitly taken from Friday the 13th Part II (1981), another from underseen slasher Intruder (1989). And as the plot unfurls there’s a whiff of Cabin in the Woods (2011): if not in that film’s gonzo plotting, then in how unapologetic it is in drawing deeply from the iconography of the genre well.

Ultimately – as with that soundtrack and Stranger Things perhaps even R. L. Stine’s books themselves – Fear Street Part 1 is a mixtape of greatest hits which, whilst not bringing anything new, is still a joyous dash down memory lane with a masked maniac in hot pursuit. Plus, by seeding plot points for the remaining two instalments, it looks like this slasher revival may have a few more surprises lurking in the shadows.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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