Paying obvious homage to ’80s and ’90s horror, Fear Street Part One: 1994, the first in a rapid-fire trilogy based on the R.L. Stine novels, might not feel quite as informed about its inspirations as it is blindly nostalgic for the era in which those inspirations take place instead. It tries to capture a hypothetical nexus point between neon-ladened slashers and the industrial, pseudo-grunge culture that never really existed, yet this might be one of the most unique aspects to this film in the first place.
Opening up in a darkly lit shopping mall after hours, with a pastiche of Wes Craven’s Scream, the story begins as a young teenager gets murdered by a man in a skeleton mask. Noticeably not as crafty or inventive as the iconic 1996 feature, this film instantly lets us know what it’s trying to do at the very least.
We then move to the home of brother and sister Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), who apparently live by themselves. Deena is a nihilistic teenager who just broke up with her girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), we learn, because Sam’s afraid of being a lesbian. Since this is 1994 and I’ve watched My So-Called Life, this checks out. Josh is a computer wiz who spends his time researching true crime and their town of Shadyside’s mysterious history of cyclical mass killings.
After a crosstown high school rivalry with Sunnyvale, where Sam now attends, Deena, Josh, Sam, and their two friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger) find themselves caught up in a supernatural curse. Sam accidentally disturbed the unmarked grave of a 17th century witch, Sarah Fier, who’s been possessing the bodies of Shadyside’s killers, each with a different peculiarity. One is a machete-wielding summer camp murderer, a la Jason Voorhees, another is a young siren dressed in 1960s garb who sings before she kills her victims. There are several others we only see briefly, but who never fully become part of the story. Now the witch’s spirit has brought back all—or maybe just three—of her former vessels from the dead to hunt Sam and her friends. And so the gang must figure out how to rid Sam of the curse before they all die.
When it gets there, Fear Street 1994 is a pretty good modern slasher. Not nearly as evocative as its progenitors, the film is saved by a great finale with a unique twist and some bold genre surprises that are made more surprising by the very lack of them beforehand. We just weren’t aware that director and co-writer Leigh Janiak (along with Kyle Killen and Phil Graziadei) was willing to increase the body count like this. And she also finds a way to justify her characters “splitting up,” even if she doesn’t seem to fully realize that she’s satirizing one of the most infamous horror tropes ever.
The very idea of former serial killers waging “war” against Deena and her friends is an intriguing, yet logical hook for a horror homage to have, but we do wish that we could’ve seen more of the former murders that Josh introduced to us through newspaper clippings, such as the boy who bashes in his victims’ skulls with a bat or the guy with no eyes.
Despite the inferior display of genre, however, the film’s weakest aspect is not the horror at all, but its desire to interject the plot with modern-day soap opera fodder. Terrified that the audience won’t be emotionally invested in its characters, the writers riddle the action with several moments of elongated, verbose relationship melodrama—even during the most intense scenes. Any true horror fan will likely scoff at the contrived development randomly scattered throughout a film that longs to be part of a genre that’s typically known for picking its spots to insert depth, letting the rest of it flow out naturally.
Never for a second do we believe that any of these kids are actually from 1994, and it’s hard to pinpoint the era in which it’s set, outside of the opening sequence and the soundtrack choices. It’s also hard to find many likable characters outside of Josh and, occasionally, Simon and Kate. Josh is our real surrogate for the events in the film, and the one character who we don’t want to see die. Flores Jr. also gives one of the more grounded performances of the bunch.
The movie has a great comedic sense in places, but Janiak doesn’t know how to use that tool consistently enough. Hechinger is the obvious comedic relief, and he does a great job as another standout in the cast. Unfortunately, Deena, our protagonist, manages to be both flawed AND unlikable, as she almost always operates under selfish desire rather than logic, and her vices are so empowered that the audience can’t possibly sympathize with her either. For as much as this movie wants the audience to feel some sort of emotional attachment, it never establishes a moral code for any of its characters—with the exception of maybe Kate, the unassumingly hedonistic drug dealer.
There’s a reason why horror movies typically can’t be action-packed and develop characters at the same time. Ultimately, Fear Street Part One: 1994 could be a lot leaner (and shorter), but when it counts, the movie nails the effed-up schlock it’s going for while also setting up enough lore that makes us want to watch parts Two and Three.