Fear Street Part 1: 1994 opens with teen mallrat Heather (Maya Hawke) dancing to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” while closing up the bookshop where she works. The sequence slowly segues into a Scream homage in which a cloaked, knife-wielding maniac wearing a skull mask chases her through the dark, abandoned mall. The shops, fashions and general attitude of the movie harken back to a time that feels immortalized by the silver screen. If you’re a ’90s nostalgia nerd, you’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to geek heaven.
Fortunately the film doesn’t boil down to a mere nostalgia fest. Nor does it become the kind of white, heteronormative slasher flick of that era. This is Scream for Gen Z, incorporating a multiracial cast of characters and a queer love story. It captures the spirit of the R.L. Stine book series upon which it is based, but it offers a more diverse perspective. It’s the ’90s as cinema should remember them.
In an interview with IndieWire, co-writer / director Leigh Janiak said: “For me, this was about trying to tell stories about people that normally would not have been highlighted. There were queer people in the ’90s. There were Black people. There was a whole swath of people that are underrepresented in horror movies or die very quickly! That was an exciting part of the trilogy to me and built into why I wanted to make the movies.”
Yes, this is the first part of a trilogy of films, each premiering one week apart on Netflix. It’s an interesting cinematic experiment by the streamer, taking its blending of traditional cinema and serialized stories one step further.
The opening incident in 1994 is just another footnote in the city of Shadyside’s history of horror. Shadyside High (because there must be a high school) is filled with chatter among the desensitized teens about how their home’s latest bogeyman must be related to “the witch’s curse” (there must also be a curse). But all Deena (Kiana Madeira) can think about is her doomed love life.
Deena reluctantly goes to the Friday night football game to return a box of mementos to her ex. She stares daggers across the field, and the camera cleverly lingers on the quarterback who looks like Jerry O’Connell in Scream 2, leading us to believe he is her beau. The film then subverts our ’90s-era expectations, revealing her ex, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), to now be the QB’s cheerleader girlfriend who left Shadyside to hide her homosexuality within the quaint, conservative haven of Sunnyvale. It’s the Pleasantville to Shadyside’s Scream-like Woodsboro.
Along with co-writers Phil Graziadei and Kyle Killen (who gets a story by credit), Janiak paints Shadyside as a place trapped in time, unable to embrace social change as it perpetually reels from yearly tragedies. Like the best teen slasher films, this one explores the growing pains occurring amid its grisly scares. But it gives voice to teen issues we never heard much about in ’90s slasher flicks — struggles with race, class, sexuality, identity. In Shadyside, teens aren’t safe from insecurity or prejudice let alone a masked madman. When one character reveals their sexuality in front of a homophobic family member late in the film, it feels just as triumphant as an escape from the film’s bogeyman.
Deena and Sam are forced to face their conflicted relationship when they both become targets of the Skull Mask Killer. Their friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger) join in to help along with Deena’s brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), who uses his knowledge of the city’s curse to ward off danger.
The ensemble shares endearing and comedic chemistry, and as their bond grows, the film takes on a more lighthearted, hopeful tone. This makes the third act’s gruesome scares feel jarring and a bit out of place. But that’s ultimately fitting for a film that aims to fly in the face of everything we expect within this familiar territory.
This first chapter of the Fear Street trilogy is a refreshing treat — ’90s movie candy bursting with a variety of flavors and wrapped in a package appealing to a wider, underrepresented audience. Adults who grew up in the ’90s will enjoy it, but the kids who discover it on the streaming platform that replaced our Blockbuster will find it cathartic and empowering. We love horror films when we’re young because they gives us a forbidden thrill, but they also let us know that we’re not alone with our fears.