While the 70s and 80s remain the golden era for slasher films, you’d be a fool to dismiss the output from the 90s. Franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th were on their way out, and more savvy fare like Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) were slicing and dicing their way into the pop culture lexicon. Cool young casts, copious needle drops, and stylish stalk ‘n slash sequences became the new genre norm, and it was pretty damn glorious. While those films dominated theaters, R.L. Stine’s Fear Street horror novels for teen readers were topping bestseller lists. Now two decades after the 90s were officially laid to rest, it’s like they never ended as Netflix’s Fear Street: 1994 has arrived — and it might just be one of the best 90s slashers made in the 21st century.
The town of Shadyside has something of a reputation. Not only is it on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, but the town has also been home to numerous mass murders over the years committed by otherwise upstanding citizens. Another one joins the list when a young man kills seven people at the local mall before being shot dead by police, but his death doesn’t end this latest nightmare. A killer in a skull mask slashes his way through a hospital, a masked man arrives swinging a bloody ax, a razor-wielding young woman attacks a teen in the street — and depending on who you ask, they might all be here at the bidding of a long dead witch named Sarah Fier.
Deena (Kiana Madeira) already has a lot on her mind after a recent breakup with Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch), but she’s soon drawn into the bloody mayhem when Sam finds herself targeted by the killers. They’re joined by Deena’s brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and their friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), and the five find themselves in a fight for their lives as they try to understand what’s happening and how to stop it.
Fear Street: 1994 is part one in a new trilogy — parts two and three, 1978 and 1666, premiere over the next two weeks — and it is a fantastic time. Whether you’re a fan of Stine’s books, 90s slashers, or just love well-crafted, energetic horror movies, director/co-writer Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon, 2014) delivers a neon and blood-drenched ride populated by likable characters, grisly kills, and more 90s music than a Sam Goody going out of business in the early 2000s.
While Stine’s Fear Street books are the main inspiration here, it’s abundantly clear that Janiak and friends share an equal love for Wes Craven’s Scream. From an opening sequence that introduces a recognizable face in Stranger Things‘ Maya Hawke only to brutally kill her, to teens being alternately entertained and terrified by the prospect of a killer at large, the vibe is familiar but welcome. That extends to the killers as well who feel very human in their aggression and movement, but the film takes a sharp right turn with its supernatural elements. Shadyside has a past, one that earned it the nickname Killer Capital USA, meaning the revelations here involve far more than just a whiny mama’s boy seeking a sociopathic revenge.
Janiak and cinematographer Caleb Heymann give Fear Street: 1994 an attractive look and feel as the camera peers through windows, moves across locations drenched in neon and shadow, and captures the varied emotions racing across the characters’ faces. They never shy away from the bloodletting either, and while stabbings and slicings are the go to kills, viewers are also treated to a couple more elaborate beats including a third-act kill that’s as gloriously gory as it is shocking.
The young cast is every bit as responsible for the film’s success as their talent ensures viewers will give a damn. They’re a charismatic bunch, and they bring to life likable characters who we want to see survive the night. Hechinger lands much of the film’s humor with a character who could have easily come across as annoying but is instead oddly endearing, and you can’t help but respect his pride at having gone to “pound town” with himself while the others hooked up. There’s a sweetness, too, in the relationship between Deena and Sam, and both Madeira and Welch balance their awkward teen affection well.
It’s no exaggeration to suggestion that a healthy portion of Fear Street: 1994‘s budget went to music rights as the needle drops are ridiculously frequent with familiar songs from Nine Inch Nails, Garbage, Cypress Hill, Portishead, Bush, Radiohead, and many, many more. One sequence sees at least five drop in the span of two minutes! It’s guaranteed to turn some viewers off, especially as the sound mix favors the music over character dialogue at times (at least via the Netflix screener), and it takes away time from Marco Beltrami‘s score, but the rest of us will most likely be heading to Spotify after the credits end to keep the tunes flowing.
Fear Street: 1994 is a bloody blast that both knows and respects the genre and period it’s bringing to life here. The story is engaging, the characters are compelling, and Janiak keeps it all moving with style, energy, and an appreciation for the red stuff. It’s unclear yet how the story will move forward while the films move backward, but regardless of where the next two films go this works damn well as a standalone nod to 90s horrors.