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Non-Review Review: Fear Street Part One – 1994

Nostalgia is a strange creature, by turns deceptive and revealing.

Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, based on an original story inspired by the books written by R.L. Stine, is effectively a loving slice of horror nostalgia and a trip through slasher movie history. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 is very obviously an effort to take the genre back to its roots, evoking classics like Halloween or Black Christmas, and with its summer camp setting directly inviting comparisons to Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th, Part II. Similarly, Fear Street Part One: 1994 is clearly constructed as a loving homage to the slasher revival of the nineties, to films like Scream, Urban Legends or I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Skull Kill Crew…

In some ways Fear Street feels like a companion to that other big Netflix nostalgia property, Stranger Things. The three films are directed and co-written by Leigh Janiak, who is married to Stranger Things co-creator Ross Duffer. Like Stranger Things, there is a strong sense that Fear Street Part One: 1994 is aimed at a generation of viewers too young to remember the era firsthand. As such, Fear Street Part One: 1994 doesn’t feel like an attempt to accurately recreate the era so much as provide a cartoonish snapshot. It captures the pop memory of the period much more than the reality.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 is an appealing slice of genre nostalgia populated with a charming cast and an appealing high concept, albeit one that is occasionally so preoccupied by its broad brush strokes that it misses the final details. Then again, that is how nostalgia often works. Ironically, Fear Street Part One: 1994 probably has less to say about the genre than the movies that it is invoking.

“I have a bone to pick with you.”

There’s a lot to appreciate in Fear Street Part One: 1994 as a simple genre exercise. Janiak clearly has a strong understanding of the rules and conventions of the genre, and an appreciation for what the film’s intended audience expects. Despite its age rating, Fear Street Part One: 1994 is clearly aimed at a young teenage audience in terms of its sensibilities, but also understands that this younger audience seeking out a slasher film doesn’t want a watered down version. There are some impressively brutal and bloody murders in Fear Street Part One: 1994, particularly towards the climax of the film.

The plot is fairly conventional as these sorts of movies go. A group of teenagers accidentally invoke an ancient curse, waking a slumbering witch who sends an army of undead ghouls to avenge the perceived wrong. This framing device allows for a cavalcade of ghoulish serial killers that seem to take their cues from all manner of classic horror films, from Friday the 13th, Part II to Scream. Naturally, the teenage protagonists find themselves racing against time to lift the curse and escape with their lives. The cast is generally winning, but the characters are broad.

“Do you like retro movies?”

Fear Street Part One: 1994 is clearly powered by a love of the era in which it is set. The film even opens with a tacit defense of the slasher movie genre, as video shop clerk Heather hands a horror movie across the counter. “I love this one,” Heather tells her customer. “It’s trash,” comes the response from a mother renting a schlocky horror movie to keep her child entertained for a few hours. Fear Street Part One: 1994 implicitly understands that part of the appeal of the genre is that it can be both trash and lovable simultaneously.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 is a whirlwind of nostalgia for the early-to-mid-nineties. The movie’s soundtrack is essentially a mix tape of the greatest hits of the era, dropping in music cues from classics like Closer by Nine Inch Nails, I’m Only Happy When It Rains by Garbage, Insane in the Membrane by Cyprus Hill and Creep by Radiohead. The local bookstore has shelves stacked with Jackie Collins. Beastie Boys posters hang on the wall. Dial-up broadband screeches to life, as the protagonist complains to her younger brother, “Do you know how expensive AOL is?”

A hole load of nostalgia.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 draws very heavily from the aesthetic of that wave of nineties slasher movies. The film’s opening set piece is very deliberately evocative of Scream, right down to particular shots and the decision to position perhaps the most famous recognisable face in the film as the opening sequence’s sacrificial lamb. While slasher villains have worn distinctive masks since Halloween and Friday the 13th, Part II (and, more enduringly, Friday the 13th, Part III), the skeleton mask in Fear Street Part One: 1994 cannot help but directly evoke the famous “Ghostface” mask from Scream.

There’s a lot of affection in this nostalgia, but it is ultimately shallow. It captures a lot of the imagery and sound of the era, as if reconstructing the period from yearbook photos and recovered mix tapes, but it captures very little of the actual substance. Although the aesthetic of the film is steeped in the nineties, the actual structural and narrative elements appeal to a much more modern sensibility. Fear Street Part One: 1994 feels like a modern teen slasher movie that has simply been shifted backwards in time, occasionally evoking the sensibility of something like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

“Aisle be there.”

Fear Street Part One: 1994 opening set piece takes place in a video store, as much a historical marker as anything else. After all, the nineties were  a decade of filmmakers who came of age in the era of VHS, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. If the seventies had been the era of the so-called “Movie Brats”, then the nineties belonged to the “VHS Brats.” This perhaps explained the general reflexive and self-aware tone of the era, as so much of the decade’s media came from artists who had easier access to older films and television than earlier generations.

This self-awareness filtered through into the slasher genre with movies like Scream, which were designed as slasher movies aimed at a generation that had grown up watching slasher movies. While the opening sequence of Fear Street Part One: 1994 is set in a video store, one of the primary characters in Scream worked in a video store. A key sequence from Scream involved the character of Randy explaining the rules and conventions of the genre to his fellow students, a genre-savvy take on a classic horror template.

This guy is really a bit of a drag.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 is genre-savvy, but in a different way. The characters in the film accept the supernatural nature of their situation quickly enough, and use their wits to quickly deduce the nature of the evil that is stalking them. However, they also very quickly set out to weaponise their understanding of the rules against the creature itself, using their familiarity with the conventions of the genre offensively rather than simply defensively. This is an approach favoured in modern horrors like It Follows, Lights Out or Oculus. It’s an acutely different understanding of the logic of horror films than that on display during the nineties.

That said, there are ways in which this modernity feels refreshing and interesting. At several points, Fear Street Part One: 1994 foregrounds elements that would rarely get foregrounded in a horror movie from the era. This is most obvious in the film’s central relationship, the romance between Deena and Samantha. It is impossible to imagine a mainstream slasher movie from the nineties foregrounding a gay relationship in the way that Fear Street Part One: 1994 does.

A friend in need is a friend in… dead?

It’s to Janiak’s credit that Fear Street Part One: 1994 largely avoids the more uncomfortable subtext that underpins so much of the slasher genre, the creepy strain of puritanism that tends to punish characters for having sex – often after luxuriating in depicting that sex for the audience. Two of the central characters, Kate and Simon, in Fear Street Part One: 1994 are the local drug dealers. However, the film treats the pair with considerable empathy and nuance. It’s an element of the film’s revisionism that feels earned and deserved, playing with the conventions of the genre in an interesting way.

The film is also underscored with a simmering class tension between the two halves of the local community, the rundown “Shadyside” and the wealthier “Sunnyvale.” Although it’s only passively relevant to the plot of this particular film, there’s a surprisingly amount of resentment and anger simmering through the community. Deena and Samantha’s relationship was derailed by Samantha’s move from “Shadyside” to “Sunnyvale”, and Deena is openly resentful of her ex-girlfriend’s conformity to the norms of “Sunnyvale”, which includes a heterosexual relationship with a local football player.

Ultraviolent.

While it certainly has its charms, the biggest problem with Fear Street Part One: 1994 is a problem common to many of these nostalgic exercises. It treats the time and place as an aesthetic trapping, rather than trying to engage with the substance of the era in question. Fear Street Part One: 1994 is an efficient workout and loving celebration to the schlocky horrors of the era, but is never really interested in the mechanics of how those slashers actually worked or what that era was actually like.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 occasionally feels like a reconstruction of a faded yearbook photo; the look is there, along with the fashion and the attitude, but some of the finer detail and character has been lost.

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