Credit: Netflix
by Chris Mello Featured Film Streaming Scene

Fear Street Part One: 1994 | Leigh Janiak

July 2, 2021

This first Fear Street entry suggests possible upward momentum for the trilogy, but disappoints as a slasher in its own right.

There’s promise to Fear Street: 1994, the first part in a trilogy based on Goosebumps author R.L. Stine’s novels for young adults. For one thing, it’s an R-rated teen slasher set in the 1990s, a decade that is mercifully not the 1980s, and seems aimed at anyone who grew up on the Goosebumps TV series but now prefers a bit of gore in their horror. More importantly, it marks a return to feature film directing for Leigh Janiak, who made her debut with the weird, creepy Honeymoon in 2014 and has only directed television since. But what was memorable about Janiak’s debut is totally absent here in favor of Stranger Things adjacent aesthetic choices, perhaps to be expected from the leap to studio horror, and it takes this first Fear Street (the next two are being released in the next two weeks) far too long to arrive at the enjoyable Goosebumps-for-adults groove it eventually finds.

Set in Shadyside, the cursed sister town to neighboring Sunnyvale (imagine if Tree Hill shared a border with Silent Hill), the film opens with a murder in a mall that pretty closely mirrors the opening murder of Scream, down to the recreation of a few of that scene’s iconic shots. Steal from the best, I suppose, but instantly inviting this comparison here and elsewhere in the first 20 minutes just highlights how deficient Fear Street is as a slasher. Scream — the movie this critic has seen more than any other, so forgive the obvious bias — may have been revolutionary for its self-aware bent, but it endures because it is a rock-solid thriller, one that is practically unmatched among slasher movies in both its tonal control and its ability to execute its set pieces. By comparison, the scenes Janiak cribs nearly shot for shot play like a high school theater production of the real thing, recognizable images rendered powerless by a sense of simply going through the motions.

The film gets better once it starts to ditch the references (and the early barrage of So ’90s needle-drops) and dig into its own mythology, throwing Shadysider Deena (Kiana Madeira), her ex-girlfriend Sam (Olivia Welch), Deena’s computer nerd little brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr., the highlight), and a few other friends into a nightmare scenario: all the historic murderers of Shadyside are reanimated and out for their blood. And so, the teens must hatch a plan to survive — stopping only to have sex with each other, naturally — that eventually goes to some fun places, with a few gory deaths along the way. But throughout, the planning stage is consistently more engaging than the execution. The best parts of Fear Street: 1994 are those when Shadyside curse-obsessed Josh lays out exactly what’s happening to the group, his collection of newspaper clippings finally coming in handy, or those quiet, genuinely sweet moments of reconciliation between Deena and Sam. But the worst parts are uniformly the slasher set pieces, which remain blandly staged and performed without passion, as if no one making this movie actually wants to be making a slasher.

Two more Fear Street films are releasing in the coming weeks, suggesting that perhaps seeing the whole picture might recontextualize and elevate this one. Decent characterization and a few glimmers of a fun, unique vibe here suggest that this trilogy could still hit its groove, but for now, we’re left with one very disappointing sub-slasher.

You can currently stream Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street Part One: 1994 on Netflix.