Based on the books by R.L. Stine, the horror film trilogy “Fear Street” is an ambitious throwback to the slasher films of yesteryear.
Part one, which takes place in 1994, opens with a typical horror film set piece. As the local mall closes for the night, Heather (Maya Hawke), a bookstore clerk, is terrorized. There are some predictable jump scares before murder and mayhem ensue. Welcome to Shadyside, a town cursed after Sarah Fier, pronounced “fear,” of course, was a hanged in 1666 for witchcraft. She has been seeking revenge ever since.
“Fear Street” soon introduces its feisty lesbian heroine, Deena (Kiana Madeira), who is despondent after her break up with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). Sam moved to the thriving Sunnydale, the town next door, and, adding insult to injury, has taken up with Peter (Jeremy Ford). Deena is now hellbent on revenge herself. When she inadvertently causes a car accident — Peter was driving, with Sam inside — it prompts Sam to “see” Sarah Fier. As a result, Sam becomes hunted down by past serial killers, continuing the Shadyside curse.
This development spurs Deena into action. She asks her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr.), and her best friends Kate (Julia Rahwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), to help keep Sam safe and end the centuries-long cycle of violence.
This undemanding trilogy asks viewers to suspend their disbelief as the plucky teens try to outwit the killers. During a sequence where the characters set a trap, Deena and Sam take a minute to have a makeup kiss in their bras, while Josh and Kate share an intimate moment — hey, they could die! — and Simon, the film’s goofball, pleasures himself. It is par for the genre that the teens are horny, and then some become victims, and that theory does play out to a degree in at least the first two installments.
The violence in the series is gleefully bloody and often over-the-top. There’s a nasty sequence in part one involving a body being shredded by a supermarket bread slicer, and a nifty bit where a splattered killer reanimated itself much to Josh’s horror. Overall, the violence in the series is quite graphic, and Janiak is fond of showing sharp objects cutting, impaling, and lacerating, as well as beheadings. Arguably, more disturbing is seeing women in the film being slapped, chained up, and abused — even if some of it is necessary for the story.
“Fear Street” does pay homage to classic slasher films, including the “Living Dead” films, to “Carrie,” and “Friday the Thirteenth.” The latter two are invoked in “Fear Street Part Two: 1978.”
In the second film, Deena and Josh meet C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), who survived the curse, and may hold the key to saving Sam. C. Berman recounts what happened years ago at Camp Nightwing, when Sarah Fier’s map and diary (and hand) are discovered along with an underground lair. Meanwhile, aboveground, there is an ax murderer, Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye), on the loose killing campers during color war. The stalking generally lacks suspense, because the main purpose of this installment is to provide bits of information that is critical for “Fear Street Part Three: 1666.”
The concluding film, begins as an origin story, set in the Puritan town of Union, which was later divided into Shadyside and Sunnydale. Sarah Fier (Kiana Madeira in a double role) falls for Hannah Miller (Olivia Scott Welch, again) and after they are spied kissing one night, bad things start to happen. However, Sarah discovers who the real villain is—it’s not a spoiler that she is innocent—as well as the aforementioned underground lair. This all leads to Sarah being called a witch and hanged, setting the revenge curse in motion.
Alas, the first half of this film unfolds like a morality play, and at times it can feel preachy and didactic. There are discussions about the wickedness and abomination of lesbianism, and considerable talk about sacrifice, (a theme in all three films). But the talk goes nowhere, really.
Fortunately, “Fear Street Part Three: 1666” shifts gears after the midpoint and returns to 1994, to let Deena, Josh, and C. Berman along with mall custodial engineer, Martin (Darrell Britt-Gibson, providing nice comic relief) try to right all the wrongdoing. The series fires on all cylinders as these characters devise a crafty plan to trap the guilty party and all of the reanimated serial killers in one epic showdown.
The series is hardly an actor’s showcase, but Kiana Madeira makes Deena a gutsy heroine to admire. It is not insignificant that her love for Sam drives her to kill or be killed. In support, Gillian Jacobs displays some real verve in her scenes. The series’ other standout performer is Sadie Sink, who is prominently featured in part two.
The “Fear Street” trilogy may scratch an itch for fans of the genre, but it fails to truly distinguish itself. It is as if the filmmaker’s aspirations exceed her execution. There are some sloppily edited sequences, and a few scenes run on too long, especially in part two. Given how much director-cowriter Leigh Janiak likes to play with sharp objects, she could have used some to cut each film down to 90 minutes.
But with songs from Sophie B. Hawkins, Garbage, Radiohead, The Pixies, David Bowie, and many more, “Fear Street” at least boasts a killer soundtrack.
FEAR STREET TRILOGY | Directed by Leigh Janiak. Available July 16 on Netflix.