By Deep Guha
Teen-slasher films are a tricky business. Some love to believe that the sub-genre has a plethora of assets in its bank for it to be taken seriously, others think a bucket of blood, dead teenagers, and a close-up of a knife is all you need to make a slasher. I fall in the former group. That being said, I think, when Wes Craven took the field, he kinda dismantled the genre for good. But it is films like Fear Street Part 1: 1994 that keeps the audience coming back to the genre. The film is part of an upcoming trilogy set in three different time periods with interconnected storylines and is based on horror icon R. L. Stine’s Fear Street book series.
The movie is set in 1994, in the ragged town of Shadyside or as it is dubbed in the in-film universe as the ‘murder capital of the United States’, which, according to urban legends, is haunted by the curse of a witch. The movie opens with a cloaked and masked figure committing murders. But director Leigh Janiak, in a show of brilliant storytelling, kills off the killer in the first few minutes. This trope subversion helps the film establish the approach that the filmmakers have taken, for it sends out the message that this film won't be just another ‘crazy serial killer on the loose’ movie. This decision also gives the filmmaker space to breed something new out of the known and unknown.
As the story progresses, we see our heroes get embroiled, unwittingly, in a centuries-old mystery, and do whatever they can to survive the night. The roles of the protagonists are played to almost perfection by their respective casts. Deena(Kiana Madeira) is a misfit, a heartbroken high school band drummer, plagued by dad issues, a nerd brother and the group’s de facto leader. Sam(Olivia Scott Welch) is Deena’s ex-girlfriend, who’s moved out of Shadyside to the more prosperous Sunnyvale, after the divorce of her parents, and is struggling with her identity and relationship with Deena. Josh(Benjamin Flores Jr.), Deena’s younger brother is the archetype 'resourceful nerd' of the group. He has a deep understanding of the legend of the witch and the centuries-old murder mysteries that haunt the town. Kate(Julia Rehwald) is the school valedictorian, head cheerleader, and a drug dealer. She intends to save up the money from her 'venture' and leave Shadyside to make her aspirations come true. Simon(Fred Hechinger) is the oddball of the group. Unlike in most teenage horror movies, the Fear Street group are not just carcasses to be dropped on the floor for the writers or the audiences. They convey genuine depth and human vulnerability. They don’t just drift along with the narrative but act with purpose. The dynamics are organic, complicated, just as they should be.
The writers have delicately stitched the plot, with some extremely terrifying twists, gory set pieces, subversion of slasher tropes, sudden escalations, and rich characters. Janiak cleverly works in her own style and understanding of what a modern teen slasher should be. Even though the film is situated in the ’90s, the characters resonate with today’s suburban teen demographic. The film’s mythology is constructed in such a cohesive manner that it almost pulls you in it. The movie also heavily works 90’s nostalgia into it. From background tracks to AOL, to mixtapes, it has it all. The construct and mythos of the world of Fear Street doesn’t seem forced, on the other hand, the stark contrast between Shadyside and Sunnyvale try to touch upon the reality of the privileged and unprivileged. The movie (and the trilogy as a whole) carries an uncanny resemblance with Stranger Things, in terms of aesthetics and other narrative elements, perhaps this similitude is what pushed Netflix to jump into the project in the first place.
The movie also sets an atmosphere akin to the stalwarts of the genre. Part One gives nods to films like The Shining, Jaws, Poltergeist, Night of The Living Dead, etc. And in its making, it invokes the ethos of seminal horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Halloween.
The ambience and tone of the film are perfect, the background score by Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp successfully elevates the atmosphere. The pacing stumbles sometimes but is enough to keep you on the edge of the seat. Moreover, it brings an exciting new lore into the world of slasher films and sets a positive tone for the rest of the trilogy.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is currently streaming on Netflix.