Ten years ago in 1994, I was walking into the local bookstore to pick the new…wait….that was 27 years ago? Fine then, I will start over. Almost 3 decades ago, with my allowance in hand, I was strolling into the local bookstore on a mission to snag the newest Goosebumps book by R.L. Stine. I didn’t care who or what the monster was, I was all in, and couldn’t wait to read it. Clearly, I was not alone in my budding horror obsession, as the Goosebumps franchise sold over 300 million copies worldwide creating an entirely new generation of horror devotees. As fun as they were, Goosebumps books were relatively safe, offering moments of peril and fear, but rarely any horrifying** moments of death. As adolescence crept up on Goosebumps readers, they needed more bloodshed and scares as they descended deeper into the horror fandom. Well, thankfully, Stine had already written several books that would become the next step into the horror world with his Fear Street novels. From their first publication in 1989 Fear Street was everything that fans loved about Goosebumps but turned up to 11 to match the growing angst and raging hormones of Goosebumps readers. Violence? Check. Blood? Check. Sex? Well, hints of sex. Fear Street was still YA afterall, but would become for so many teenage readers, the bridge to adult authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker.
Flash forward to 2021, and a lot of those Goosebumps “boos and ghouls” have children of their own that are starting to wade into the waters of horror fiction, leaving their parents longing for the nostalgia of their youth. Eager to cash in on that nostalgia, Netflix steps up with a trilogy of films inspired by Stine’s Fear Street novels, the first being Fear Street: 1994. I think it is very important to solidify in your mind that this is a gateway horror film designed to draw in younger audiences that aren’t quite ready for the blood and guts of a true slasher film, but are ready to move past the safety of things like Goosebumps. With the proper mindset, Fear Street: 1994 is an edgy and fun introduction to slasher films for an adolescent audience.
The film opens with book store clerk Heather, played by Maya Hawke of Stranger Things fame, making one last sale of the night before closing up. As if Heather’s wardrobe isn’t enough to remind you that the film is undeniably set in the 1990’s, the soundtrack of NIN “Closer” and the close up shots of horror fiction novels by “Robert Lawrence” (the R and the L of R.L. Stine) certainly will. FS:1994’s soundtrack is full of popular 90’s grunge tracks, sometimes appearing at strange times, seemingly only to remind us of the time period of the film. After a quick introduction to Heather’s friend Ryan, who also works at the mall and is her ride home, Heather is attacked by someone in a Skeleton costume. After several minutes of cat and mouse between Heather, and who comes to be known as “Skull Mask”, Heather is brutally murdered in the middle of the mall. Man. Right from the start FS:1994 goes full Scream and lets you know that it isn’t afraid to kill who you thought was going to be the main character of the film. It is violent and there is plenty of blood, but it isn’t over the top 80’s slasher level blood. Just enough to set the tone of the film.
During the opening credits, we are given some brief exposition about the town and the strange killings that have happened over the years through images of newspaper clippings. I’m really confused why anyone wants to live here. This town has had a lot of murder. As the opening credits finish, we are introduced to our main protagonist of the film, Deena. Deena is the typical brooding teenager going through a breakup, listening to Garbage and writing an “I hate you” letter to her ex. Meanwhile, her brother Josh is holed up in the basement, chatting on AOL in a room about the “Shadyside Killings”. I’m a bit partial to Josh, as our intro to his character has him listening to ‘Fear of the Dark’ by Iron Maiden. Josh is also our guide through the history of the town’s killings as his obsession has made him somewhat of an expert.
The Scooby team is assembled once Deena meets up with her friends Kate and Simon in the girls bathroom at school. The archetypes of a typical slasher are clearly laid out. Deena is the obvious final girl, brooding over her unrequited love with her ex, Sam. Kate is the preppy cheerleader that keeps encouraging Deena to move on, and Simon is the token sex crazed stoner of the group, who along with Kate, is selling prescription pills to the majority of their high school. As far as slashers go, the group is actually pretty likeable, and there are some subtle character moments that allow them to stand out as not just a paint by numbers character in a slasher film.
One of my favorite things about this movie is something that is so simple, yet sadly missing from horror films, especially slashers. When we finally meet Deena’s ex, Sam, it is revealed that Sam is actually a girl, and a big part of their breakup revolved around Sam’s acceptance of her own sexuality. This isn’t really a big deal in the film and that is what makes it special. Often in horror films, being LGBTQIA+ is used as a punchline, but this film normalizes their relationship so that it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. I appreciate how Deena and Sam are well rounded characters that just happen to be gay.
Heading into the second act of the film, I found myself feeling a bit underwhelmed with the Skull Mask killer. Everything about him just felt like he was just a copy of Ghost Face from Scream, but thankfully, FS:1994 knows this and introduces us to the real killers of the film. That’s right. Plural. Once our heroes discover that Sam has been cursed by a witch from 1666, Josh discovers that all of the crazy murders in their town’s history are connected, and the witch has sent supernatural killers to seek her revenge. Yes, I am aware of the absurdity of how that last bit sounds. It is crazy, but it actually works. With the supernatural angle now firmly in place, FS:1994 can get away with so much more without having to explain it through the plot. My favorite aspect of this plot device is that we get to see all of the killers from the news clippings come to life. Skull Mask now has friends to help him seek the witch’s revenge and it brings in a new level of danger that the film didn’t really have before. There isn’t really anything particularly new or inventive with the past killers, but they are at the very least, familiar slasher tropes that we all love.
The one thing that FS:1994 really lacks in the slasher department is it’s kills. For a gateway horror film there is more blood than I had expected, but as a diehard gorehound, I found myself wanting more. With the exception of one particularly inventive death that reminded me of the band saw kill from Intruder (1989), the kills are pretty straightforward and uninspired. Although I wanted to see more destruction and mayhem in an R rated film, its absence didn’t ruin the film for me. I often feel that as horror fans, we forget that there isn’t a one size fits all slasher film, but due to the popularity of the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and other slasher franchises, it can be easy to say that in order to be a good slasher, the film must follow those same blueprints. While that might make a commercially successful slasher, that doesn’t mean that it is the only way to make a slasher. There is plenty of room within the genre for entries with less gore and more mood. “Less Gore, More Mood” could honestly be the slogan of most late 90’s and 2000’s slasher films.
While I don’t want to spoil who lives and who dies in the film, I will say that FS:1994 does give the viewer some closure and could easily leave it as a standalone film. The main storyline is tied up neatly, with only a few threads left purposefully unravelled. Netflix openly marketed Fear Street as a trilogy, so you knew going in that the film was at least going to set up the next one, which it certainly does in the final scene of the film. It becomes clear that one of the killers from earlier in the film will be central to Fear Street: 1978 as it will center around a Friday the 13th style campground massacre, complete with a Friday the 13th Part 2 baghead “Jason.” No, it is definitely not an original idea, but Fear Street: 1994 was entertaining enough to pull me in for the next one to see where the story goes.
Overall, I feel like the Fear Street trilogy will divide many horror fans. If you are a diehard slasher fan that only likes their killers soaked in blood, guts, and boobs, then Fear Street: 1994 isn’t going to be for you. There just simply isn’t enough of any of those to keep you there, but if you enjoyed things like Are You Afraid of the Dark? or 2019’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Fear Street: 1994 will be right in your wheelhouse. While hoping to bring in a new generation of horror fans, Fear Street seems to be aimed more at the now 30 somethings hoping to feel that same nostalgia that Stranger Things brought to those who lived through the 70’s and 80’s. As for this former Goosebumps fan club member, Fear Street: 1994 hit all of the right notes to have me eagerly awaiting the next instalment.