by Andrew Wyatt on Aug 4, 2021

A feature-film adaptation of author R.L. Stine’s pulpy teen horror series Fear Street has been rumbling around in Development Hell since the late 1990s. It’s easy to see why the series might appeal to a studio hungry for the next big horror franchise: With 80 million copies sold, the Fear Street books were formative works for many older millennial horror-philes, who were seduced by the series’ kitschy cover art and hooked by Stine’s straightforward teens vs. evil stories. Long before the phrase “cinematic universe” ever befouled the lips of an entertainment executive, Stine hit on a formula that kept his loyal readers coming back, book fair after book fair. Every Fear Street title is a standalone tale of terror, but all are set in the cursed community of Shadyside, a pointedly bland suburban Anytown with an abnormally high population of vampires, ghosts, and ordinary human killers. Almost a decade before Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) turned its one-joke conceit into an elaborate occult-horror mythology, Stine envisioned a centuries-old curse that plagues the unfortunate Shadyside with a seemingly limitless supply of tragedies, both mundane and supernatural. And a good thing, too, given that Stine was cranking out a new Fear Street book every month during his most prolific period, in addition to titles in his more lighthearted children’s series, Goosebumps.

Despite the books’ built-in nostalgic appeal for horror-loving ’90s kids, it took more than two decades for a Fear Street movie to lurch into existence. After a lengthy development, distribution squabbles, and Covid-related delays, Fear Street has finally landed on Netflix in a fittingly Frankenstein-like form. Straddling the ever-murkier boundary between movies and television, this cinematic adaptation of Stine’s series comprises three feature-length films that tell an interlocking, centuries-spanning saga. Honeymoon (2014) director Leigh Janiak helms all three features, and she appears to have shepherded the trilogy’s development since 2017, in a manner somewhat akin to that of a television showrunner. (The filmmaker has a story credit on Parts One and Two, and a screenplay credit on all three chapters.)  Rather than attempting to choose from and adapt specific titles in Stine’s series, Janiak instead draws inspiration from the books’ backstory, as well as a bevy of pop-cultural influences: the aforementioned Buffy, ’90s and ’00s slasher films, Ryan Murphy-style camp horror, and CW mainstays like The Vampire Diaries (2009-17), iZombie (2015-19), and Riverdale (2017-).

Each feature unfolds in a different era, but the overall trilogy tells a cohesive story about the dead-end town of Shadyside, U.S.A. Beset by perpetual economic stagnation and an endless succession of hard-luck calamities, Shadyside seems downright cursed. This is especially the case when the town’s prospects are compared to that of neighboring Sunnydale, a picket-fence idyll of prosperity and squeaky-clean wholesomeness. It’s as though all the shit from Sunnydale runs downhill and pools in Shadyside, an impression that is not lost on the residents of either town. Local legends link Shadyside’s misfortunes to a 17th-century woman named Sara Feir, who allegedly cast a dark spell on the area’s original Puritan settlers when they hanged her for witchcraft.

Fear Street: Part One opens in 1994, with the brutal slaying of Shadyside mall bookstore clerk Heather (Maya Hawke) by a skull-masked killer. The assailant is revealed to be Heather’s friend and co-worker Ryan (David W. Thompson), who slices his way through several other mall employees before being gunned down by police. In any other town, this sort of crime would be a shocking tragedy that shakes the local community for generations, but it’s par for the course in Shadyside, which apparently endures a horrific killing spree by a previously normal-seeming citizen every decade or so.

However, such events are far from the mind of the trilogy’s primary heroine, Deena (Kiana Madeira), a headstrong Shadyside high-school senior who is despairing over her recent breakup, her angst soundtracked by period-appropriate needle drops from Garbage, Bush, and Nine Inch Nails. Deena’s closeted ex, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), has moved to Sunnydale with her family and coupled up with a douchebag golden-boy jock, Peter (Jeremy Ford). This heteronormative betrayal stings, but not enough to dissuade Deena from attending a Shadyside vs. Sunndydale football game with her best friends, valedictorian drug dealer Kate (Julia Rehwald) and high-strung oddball Simon (Fred Hechinger, doing a poor man’s impression of Logan Miller). Following a bleachers-clearing brawl during a vigil for the mall massacre victims, the Shadysiders and Sunnydalers confront each other during a high-speed chase through a forbidding stretch of forest, resulting in a car crash that injures Sam.

Unbeknownst to the film’s teen characters, this accident disturbs the hidden resting place of Sarah Fier, and the blood that Sam drips on the grave irrevocably ties her fate to the curse. Soon she, Deena, Kate, Simon, and Deena’s nerdy younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), are being stalked by Ryan the mall-killer – who is somehow still very much alive – as well as a growing roster of past Shadyside murderers who appear no worse for wear despite being decades or even centuries in their graves. As in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, the adolescent heroes’ parents are absent or ineffectual, and the only authority figure of note, Sunnydale’s Sheriff Goode (Ashley Zukerman), chalks up the unfolding bloodshed to drug-crazed Shadyside criminality. The teens are therefore forced to puzzle out for themselves what the hell is going on as the bodies pile up and Shadyside’s undead rogue’s gallery converges on the unfortunate Sam.

Fear Street: Part One strikes an eccentric tone for the trilogy right out of the gate, with Janiak and co-writer Phil Graziadei blending soapy high-school drama, comedy that runs alternately dry and shrill, and standard horror-thriller shocks slathered in unflinching gore. The film’s overall aesthetic is pure 2010s – bold colors and crisp digital imagery abound – but the production design is clearly intended to stoke the nostalgia of viewers who grew up reading Stine’s books. That design can be a little slipshod, as it is manifestly less concerned with accurately portraying 1994 than with evoking pings of generalized recognition, of the “the ’90s, amirite?” sort. (In one scene, video-game cartridges from multiple console generations are amusingly scattered on a coffee table like so much geeky set-dressing glitter.) Whether this nostalgia-baiting amounts to pandering may be a matter of individual taste, but it certainly never feels like an especially convincing illusion of small-town America in 1994 – a limitation that might also be budget-related.

Stine’s Fear Street books are somewhat notorious for their deliberately bland protagonists: Billy and Susie Everyteens on which the series’ young readers can easily project themselves. Fortunately, the films do not generally share this trait. Part One has a winning, distinctive heroine in Deena, whose jaded, tough-girl exterior conceals a soft heart that longs for acceptance and stability. Madeira paints her as a charismatic and sympathetic figure, even when she screws up royally, and her love for the shy, sweet, and soft-spoken Sam is the kind of endearing, opposites-attract relationship that warms the heart. However, for a series that is not shy about portraying violent character deaths in all their gruesome, agonizing glory, Fear Street is strangely unimaginative when it comes to illustrating the bigotry that an interracial lesbian teen couple might have faced in a small town in 1994. For this reason, the series feels less like an authentic period piece than a kind of meta-textual corrective, an attempt to retroactively stake a claim on the genre and center this story on the experiences of its queer characters. As it turns out, this reading dovetails nicely with one of the trilogy’s key overarching themes: the necessity of re-examining snug historical narratives written by those with a motivation to conceal the truth.

Just as the floor falls out from underneath the characters at the conclusion of Part One, the story pauses the action in 1994 for a feature-length flashback. Part Two – 1978 recounts the events of the notorious Camp Nightwing massacre, as told to Deena by the tragedy’s only survivor (Gillian Jacobs). Our heroine for this chapter is Ziggy (Sadie Sink, perfecting the art of the dagger glare), a surly Shadyside camper whose goody-two-shoes older sister, Cindy (Emily Rudd), works as a camp counselor. The second film announces itself as something of a Friday the 13th (1980) or Sleepaway Camp (1983) homage, but there is an unfortunate mismatch between Part Two’s focus on characterization and world-building on one hand, and the elemental appeal of the summer-camp slasher on the other (i.e., gory, often darkly comical kills). Credited to Janaik and Zak Olkewicz, the screenplay dithers excessively on various R-rated camp mischief – sex, drugs, and rivalries – before getting to the meat of the story.

Unfortunately for everyone at Camp Nightwing, one of these luckless teens has been chosen as the latest vessel for the Shadyside curse. Eventually this person stumbles over the Jack Torrance horizon line and picks up an ax, hacking their way through campers and counselors alike. Part Two pulls no punches when it comes to grisly, pitiless violence. However, compared to the gnarlier midnight-movie heights attained in Part One, this chapter feels comparatively uninspired. (There’s only so much you can do with an ax-wielding maniac.) The production design is also even less convincing in this outing, and the vintage baseball tees and athletic shorts don’t do much to conceal the impression of present-day twentysomething actors cosplaying as late-1970s teenagers. The script isn’t doing the period authenticity any favors either: It seems doubtful that any horny American teen would have described their crush as “shagadelic” prior to 1997.

Narratively speaking, the ostensible purpose of Part Two within the larger trilogy is to flesh out exactly how the Shadyside curse functions – and to highlight the tactics that didn’t work so well against the Nightwing killer, the better to prepare Deena and her friends in 1994. It fulfills this objective well enough, although the characters in Part Two are not as appealing as their Part One equivalents. Consequently, the second film feels like more of a slog, at least when it’s dawdling half-heartedly on the fraught relationship between sisters Ziggy and Cindy, the former girl's romance with a hunky Sunnydaler (Ted Sutherland), or on Cindy's curdled friendship with an old classmate (Ryan Simpkins).

The trilogy finds firmer footing in Part Three – 1666, in which the truth regarding the origins of the Shadyside curse is finally uncovered. Having learned some crucial information from the Camp Nightwing survivor, Deena returns to Sarah Fiers’ grave, where she receives a vision of the alleged witch’s final days. This flashback comprises the first half of Part Three, and, taking a nod from The Wizard of Oz (1939), most of the characters in the 17th-century sections are played by actors from the previous two features. Deena – and, by extension, the viewer – quickly learns that the local legends are wrong about almost everything regarding Sarah Fier and her curse. Sarah (Madeira) is in love with pastor’s daughter Hannah (Miller), which would be a perilous situation regardless of circumstances, but especially at a moment when a cold-sweat panic about witchcraft (and, by extension, uppity women) is beginning to dig its talons into the village. Blame for recent misfortunes naturally falls on a widowed hermit woman (Jordana Spiro) but also on Sarah and Hannah, who have rejected advances from men who are not above cloaking their vindictiveness in pious zeal. There is, however, the matter of the evil-looking grimoire that Sarah glimpses in the widow’s hut: Most of the accusations flung by the townsfolk are false, but someone in the village is indeed secretly playing with black magic.

Dodgy period production design is once again a problem in this third feature, which looks and feels far more like the 19th century than the 17th. Most of the actors also affect an inconsistent, vaguely Irish accent that makes them sound like Gangs of New York (2002) extras, which proves distracting as hell. This is a shame, because Part Three’s first half is the most earnest and heartfelt section of the trilogy: a bluntly tragic story of two young women trying to express their emergent affection in a time and place that are exceedingly hostile to that love. Although there is satanic conspiracy afoot in this tale, the real horror lies in knowing with sour, nauseating certainty exactly how Sarah and Hannah’s story is going to end. This is America, after all (or at least it will be), and things only turn out one way when the powerless attempt to exert control over their own fates.

Or do they? In the second half of Part Three, the story snaps back to Deena’s present-day situation. She and her friends must race against the clock – while fending off a small army of undead killers – to save Sam’s soul and banish the Shadyside curse once and for all. Here the trilogy regains some of its Part One spark, reaffirming that the 1997 cohort are the series’ most charming characters. The screenplay – credited to Janiak, Graziadei, and Kate Trefry – isn’t afraid to engage in some goofy Tales from the Crypt-style fun as Deena and her allies strategize and execute their endgame. After the comparatively somber and anguished 1666 sequences, this injects a welcome sense of playfulness into the proceedings, without diminishing the trilogy’s splatter-film nastiness or losing sight of viewers’ desire to see the now-revealed villains get their comeuppance.

Overall, Fear Street is a flawed but entertaining supernatural slasher epic, one that is more intriguing for its thematic and structural ambitions than its execution of horror fundamentals. It’s uncommonly handsome as horror series go – especially for a digitally shot streaming exclusive – but its wobbly period design consistently undermines its aim to create a resonant, decades- and centuries-spanning tale. For Janiak, who made a splash on the indie scene in 2014 with her psychological and body horror feature Honeymoon, these films feel like a substantial shift toward a more commercial sensibility. Given the apparent runaway success of the series on Netflix, however, Fear Street will hopefully give the director the clout to continue making the films she wants to make, in the way that she wants to make them – whether that is more franchise-friendly fare or something much weirder and wilder.

Rating (Part One): B-
Rating (Part Two): C-
Rating (Part Three): C
Rating (Overall): C+

Fear Street: Parts One, Two, and Three are now available to stream from Netflix.