Fear Street Part 1 1994 review: First instalment of the horror trilogy is more bore than gore
The first film in Netflix's "Film Trilogy Event" is something of a disappointment, says Patrick Cremona.
Prior to its debut, the most noticeable thing about new horror movie Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is undoubtedly its somewhat radical release schedule. As the name might suggest, the film is the first entry of a trilogy, but what makes it so unusual is that all three instalments will arrive on Netflix in subsequent weeks throughout July. It's a neat idea, and one that could certainly work a treat if the films are up to scratch – but unfortunately this opening film struck me as something of a disappointment.
The trilogy is loosely adapted from the books of the same name by prolific writer R.L. Stine, and it's important to note that, while Stine has been labeled the 'Stephen King of children's literature', the audience for his Fear Street novels was always slightly older than that for his more child-friendly Goosebumps series. These films, in other words, are not for younger viewers – and indeed each of the three instalments has been given an 18 age rating. That said, despite the occasional moments of gruesome gore in this first entry, there's something distinctly 'young adult' about the film, and it seems likely it will work best for horror fans still in their teens.
It starts promisingly enough, with a well-executed if slightly by-the-numbers pre-credits slasher sequence featuring Stranger Things star Maya Hawke. Hawke plays Heather, an employee at a bookshop that seems to specialise in selling the sort of pulp horror novels the film is trying to emulate, who one evening, while closing up shop, finds an unwelcome presence in the store: a mystery man wearing a dark cloak and a skull mask. It's no spoiler to say that Heather does not survive this ordeal, brutally murdered on the floor of the mall before the assailant is shot dead and unmasked – events that will naturally have drastic repercussions for the rest of the film. It's an effective opening sequence, evoking slasher movies of the past while setting up an intriguingly menacing tone and pulpy aesthetic, hinting that, even if this film won't offer much in the way of originality, it should still be a fun ride. Unfortunately, the remaining 90 minutes do little to deliver on that promise.
Following the credits, we are introduced to Deena, a student at the same high school that the murdered Heather attended, Shadyside High. As with the rest of her peer group, Deena (Kiana Madeira) seems decidedly unbothered by the brutal death of her classmate – she's far more concerned with moping about her breakup with girlfriend Sam (Olivia Welch), who has recently moved to the rival town of Sunnyvale. Meanwhile, her younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) – who enjoys listening to heavy metal and speaking with friends on a very '90s instant messaging service – has gone down a rabbit hole looking into the "one-handed witch" Sarah Fier, a former resident of Shadyside who apparently links all the terrible events that have occurred in the area over the years. We also meet Julia Rehwald as drug-dealing valedictorian Kate, and Fred Hechinger as her slightly unhinged friend Simon.
Things take a turn when a candlelight vigil held before a football match between Shadyside and Sunnyvale erupts in violence, not helped by Deena spotting her ex Sam with what looks to be a new romantic partner. Eventually, the fracas leads to a car chase that ends with a dramatic crash – the location of which ends up having vital significance for the increasingly nonsensical plot, which sees Deena, Sam, Josh, Kate and Simon doing battle with various killers from Shadyside's past.
Like Stranger Things, Fear Street is not afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, both in terms of the horror movies that have inspired it but also with regards to creating its deliberately retro, slightly stylised period setting (some of the all-too-obvious '90s needle drops include Radiohead's Creep and The Prodigy's Firestarter). But, whereas Stranger Things uses those influences to create something that feels genuinely fresh and unique, Fear Street can't manage the same, evoking older slashers without ever quite finding its own distinctive voice. Speaking of Stranger Things, one of that show's biggest strengths has always been the natural chemistry between its main cast members, kids and adults alike, but there's nothing approaching that here; although there are some decent individual performances, the five leads in the Fear Street cast never quite gel as a group.
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the aforementioned plot, which becomes increasingly convoluted as the film goes on and just never feels particularly engaging. While illogical plots can work fine in horror films if the set pieces are good enough or the character dynamics compelling enough, there just isn't enough going on here to stop it all from getting a little boring. Several key moments involve characters reading old local newspapers before stumbling upon apparently vital information, which just doesn't make for very visually arresting cinema, and although there are a couple of grisly deaths towards the end I wasn't invested enough for them to carry much emotional weight.
The film ends with a teaser for the next instalment in the series, which shifts time period to 1978 and introduces a new batch of characters (including one played by another Stranger Things star, Sadie Sink) but will apparently be linked to the events of this film. Perhaps that film will offer an improvement on what we've seen so far, but for now, this is a rather underwhelming opening to Netflix's "Film Trilogy Event".
More like this
You can order the Fear Street novels on Amazon. Looking for something else to watch in the meantime? Check out our compilation of the best series on Netflix or the best movies on Netflix. You can also plan your viewing with our TV Guide. For the latest film news, visit our Movies hub.