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STRANGER THINGS TO SCREAM IN THE DARK
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 (18)
Director: Leigh Janiak
Screenplay: Kyle Killen, Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei
Starring: Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr, Julia Rehwald
Review: RJ Bland
It's no secret that the 1980s is an era that has been fetishised quite a bit over the last few years. Finding comfort and a sense of security in the past is an understandable reaction when the present feels so tumultuous. Covid, climate change, Brexit, Trump, racial tension, Arsenal's descent into mid-table – there are a whole host of reasons to (justifiably) feel unsettled in the 2020's. The TV series that has exacerbated this trend is Netflix's Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, which charmed audiences with its retro aesthetic and Amblinesque vibe. The synthy scores and neon lights have found their way into the movies too with genre flicks like It Follows, The Void, Mandy and The Love Witch. Whilst it feels as if there is still some mileage in this particular fad, as the years roll by it's inevitable that the rose tinted glasses will turn to the 1990s in our efforts to return to a simpler time. This trend has already begun – with the resurrection of films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and talks of a Buffy reboot too. We've also had a couple of Goosebump movies and the Point Horror novel series are being adapted into a TV series as well. Whilst none of these are going to be set in the 90s per se, it's clear that there is a desire to return to some of the stuff we enjoyed from this era. Leigh Janiak's Fear Street Part 1: 1994, the first part of a Netflix trilogy, decides to tackle the 90s nostalgia head on...
The small town of Shadydale, Ohio has the rather grim reputation as the murder capital of the US, with killing sprees and murders being a part of its history for centuries. Indeed, when an unassuming young man kills several co-workers at the local mall, it just feels like history repeating itself. Whilst there is no obvious reason for the crazy high murder rates, some of the younger residents believe that it can all be traced back to a witch called Sarah Fier, who placed a curse on the town just before she was executed by the townspeople in the 17th century. Local teen Deena doesn't buy any of it but then again she's got a lot on her plate. She's practically raising her younger brother and is still reeling from a messy break up with her ex-girlfriend, Sam, who has moved to the nearby (and more prosperous) town of Sunnyvale. The two cross paths when they both attend a vigil for the victims of the mall killings. After a fight breaks out between the Shadydale and Sunnyvale students, Sam and Deena end up in a car accident, with the vehicle Sam is a passenger in careering off the road and into the woods. Lukcily there are no fatalities, but Sam begins having visions of the Fier Witch immediately after the crash. Things only get more sinister when Deena and her friends are terrorised by a selection of psychopaths later that evening and as the gang start to dig a little deeper, they realise that they up against an evil force that has plagued their town for generations...
Fear Street: 1994 is the first part of a trilogy that is being released over the course of three weeks on Netflix. It's a bold and interesting release strategy but in today's world where viewers are prepared to binge watch an entire series over the course of a day or weekend, it's not without merit. The other good thing is that we don't have too long to dwell on the fact that whilst Fear Street: 1994 is a bit of a disappointment, it'll matter a little less if the follow up (Fear Street Part 2: 1978) manages to realise the story's potential.
Director Leigh Janiak's previous feature film Honeymoon, was a controlled and intimate sci-fi horror that marked her out as one to watch. Fear Street: 1994 is a film that shares none of the subtlety of Janiak's promising debut. Within the first ten minutes, we are left in little doubt as to what this film is all about. For some it will feel like a love letter to the 90s. We have an opening scene that is essentially a reimagining of the first five minutes of Scream and are then treated to a litany of snippets of 1990s hits, with some additional references to things like AOL, just so we are aware that WE ARE IN THE 1990s, PEOPLE!
However for a film that tries to hard to recreate a sense of nostalgia, it really doesn't feel much like a movie made/set 27 years ago. It's almost how someone who never lived during that decade might imagine how the 90s were – and from an aesthetic perspective, there is nothing here that makes this film feel like a 90s slasher movie. It's all a bit too slick and polished. Forget Scream, Fear Street: 1994 feels more like a cross between Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Stranger Things, and whilst they may be set in decades past, the fact remains they exist in the modern zeitgeist and therefore feel like a part of contemporary cinema (and TV). And there's a fine line between paying homage and just repeating something too – and Fear Street: 1994 is often guilty of the latter. Maya Hawke is working in a mall for Pete's sake!
The other main issue here is that the central characters just aren't that interesting. Or particularly likeable. 90s slashers may have had their issues but for the most part, there was usually a charismatic young ensemble to root for (ok, we wanted SOME of them to die!). But it's difficult to connect with any of the protagonists in Fear Street: 1984. They're a rather irksome bunch and the fact that two of them are clearly inspired by Matthew Lillard and Rose McGowan does nothing but remind you of how much better those two were in Scream. It's not the actors' fault either. They all do their best but the script never really manages to build any chemistry between them. The decision to make a couple of them drug dealers feels a bit odd too, as is the random scene where some of the teens get it on half way through.
There are some reasons to stick around for the sequel though. It does have some flashes of inspiration every now and then and Janiak puts in enough twists and turns to keep things engaging. The film also has a colourful gloss but still impressively manages to retain a sense of mystery and atmosphere. It also deserves some credit for shooting for an 18 rating too – a brave decision for a film that is based on novels aimed at younger teens. This frees up the teenagers to act a little more like real teenagers than your average teen slasher and allows for a lot more gore too. The choice to have a lesbian relationship driving the story is also great to see, regardless of how much chemistry there is (or isn't) on screen. Inclusivity and diversity are things that the genre needs to be better at and hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
Although Fear Street is not as smart or edgy or nostalgic as it sets out to be, there is just enough here to invest in a sequel.
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