Fear Street is a Miniseries Dressed as a Movie (Part 1)
The first appearance of leatherhead isn’t The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1. John Carpenter’s 1978 horror masterpiece is not called The First Halloween. And despite an eventual Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, his first in the series was not marked as such. Like The Great War, first entries in film franchises don’t earn the “1” label until number 2 comes along. Enter Netflix and the elision of the Movies-TV distinction. Enter Fear Street Part One: 1994.
Better suited as the first and second installments in a five-part miniseries, 1994 does the dutiful work of a pilot: characters are introduced; mysteries are teased; the mythos is established. For hundreds of years, normal people in Shadyside have periodically “snapped” and gone on homicidal rampages. Next door in the pristine, picket-fenced Sunnyvale, neighborhoods are safe, kids are normal, and the Sheriff is a local hero. Of course (of course), local legend points to the persecution of a local woman as a witch in 1666 as the cause of Shadyside’s semi-regular killing sprees. When a series of coincidental events brings together a group of high school students from both towns, we finally move to what would have been the second episode of Fear Street: The Miniseries.
If you’re a horror aficionado or a fan of Stranger Things, odds are you’ll recognize the component parts in 1994. The film spends most of its time either jamming the nostalgia button or cranking the jump-scare tension dial up to 10. When it’s not strip-mining the ubiquitous Netflix series’ Generic Mall setting, it stitches together a hodge-podge of horror tropes - both stylistic and substantive. If I hear another about-to-be-victim say “ha ha, real funny, [friend’s name]” right before they die, I’ll have to assume it’s just some deal-with-the-devil that all horror directors have to make to get a production off the ground.
Despite some of the eyeroll-inducing choices, director Leigh Janiak won me over with her execution. In other words: I didn’t always like where 1994 went, but I loved how Janiak got there. She plays into well-worn horror trops (Wes Craven would be proud of her decision to cast a recognizable face just to kill her off), but she combines them in unique ways (casting a Stranger Things alum in the aforementioned role), and even adds her own twist occasionally (bringing said dead character back for a reprise). Janiak also aces her audition to direct the next John Wick wannabe franchise with a thrilling, lucid action sequence involving a school bus. And she concocts an endgame that will drag you to the edge of your seat - mere minutes before she lets the air out of the tension balloon just a bit too early. Overall, it feels like a movie dotted with the growing pains of an immensely talented director.
But here’s the allure of the pre-made trilogy, akin to the draw of the miniseries: I’m invested. If the sequel was released two years later, I might see it. But in the case of Fear Street, I know the first one was made with the advance knowledge of how things will play out, and that leaves me intrigued enough to turn on the second installment. And I definitely know that these films didn’t cast Darrell Britt-Gibson to play a janitor in the background for 120 seconds in one movie. So come, take this ride with me. Cruise down Fear Street.