Review: Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy is six hours of decent horror cosplay

Kiana Madeira and Sadie Sink are lively young heroes, but Leigh Janiak's ambitious R.L. Stine adaptation is too reliant on its references


THE FEAR STREET TRILOGY (Leigh Janiak). All three features now streaming on Netflix Canada. Rating: NNN


With the arrival of Fear Street: 1666 on Netflix yesterday, the trilogy – inspired by the YA series created by R.L. Stine in the late 80s – is complete. Viewers will finally know the story of Sarah Fier, the 17th century “witch” whose curse reverberates forward through the centuries, compelling the good people of Shadyside to do violent murder upon their friends and family every generation or so.

In the first feature, Fear Street: 1994, we watched as teenager Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her kid brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr.) came to understand that a slasher on the loose was the latest iteration of the curse – and that stopping the murderer wouldn’t necessarily stop the murders, as Deena’s girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) was possessed by the ancient blood rage in the cliffhanger.

The race to save Sam led Deena and Josh to a woman (Gillian Jacobs) who survived the massacre at Camp Nightwing 16 years earlier, a flashback to which makes up the entirety of Fear Street: 1978. And the cliffhanger for that one found Deena thrust back to 1666, becoming Sarah Fier herself – and, apparently, doomed to share her fate.

Respect to director Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) and her co-writers for turning their Friday The 13th riff into Evil Dead II, a genre needle-drop that – unfortunately – promises more complexity and cleverness than Fear Street: 1666 delivers.

Instead, the final film in the trilogy immediately backs away from its tease: while Madeira is playing Sarah now, Deena is just sort of riding along in Sarah’s body, passively experiencing the last days of her life and discovering exactly how and why Sarah’s curse came to be. Most of the other roles are played by actors we’ve seen in the first two features – Flores turns up as Sarah’s kid brother, and Welch is there as Hannah Miller, a young villager to whom Sarah is drawn despite the whole Puritan lifestyle deal – and while I understand the trope, it just doesn’t work here. Most of the cast just look uncomfortable in the period wardrobe, and the combination of formal dialogue and vaguely English accents defeats almost everyone at some point.

It’s possible that Janiak is doing this intentionally, an extension of the meta-narrative concept that finds Fear Street: 1994 reworking Scream for a new audience and Fear Street: 1978 restaging entire scenes from the Jason Voorhees canon. Both of these movies are set before the premieres of the franchises that inspired them, but I like the suggestion that the era’s popular horror formats were created by the events in Shadyside; it’s as good an explanation as any for how the zeitgeist works, and it also explains why Fear Street: 1666 doesn’t take the style of any specific project.

And honestly, it could have done with some of the claustrophobia of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, or the more personal persecutions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Instead, there’s no metaphor at all, just a straight line of events that lead to tragedy. Other than the attraction between Sarah and Hannah, which mirrors the romance between Deena and Sam, there’s no real reason to spend this much time in 1666. And thankfully, even the movie seems to realize it. After an hour or so, Deena leaps back to her present for Fear Street: 1994 Part 2, and a climax that brings the story home in a reasonably satisfying way.

So sure, if you’ve invested in the first two movies, you might as well keep going to the end. That’s the point of a series, after all, and Netflix’s strategy of releasing the trilogy over the space of two weeks is a great hook; I have no idea how these films would have played in their original conception as three theatrical features, which was how 20th Century Fox put them into production. Would they have come out over the course of a summer, in June, July and August? Would audiences have returned for each new chapter, with a $15 price tag each time?

Grouping them so close together gives them an urgency they might not otherwise have had, making the secrets of Shadyside seem far more interesting than they ultimately turn out to be. (Again, though, the simplicity of the film’s big twist does feel in line with the straightforward nature of Stine’s books.)

I know these movies aren’t made for me; I’m old enough to have seen a few of the Friday The 13th sequels in their initial theatrical runs, and the Fear Street movies are aimed at teens just discovering splatter movies, much as R.L. Stine’s original novels introduced young adults to the horror genre. (The escalation of gore across the trilogy, from one fairly explicit death at the end of the first chapter to a dozen or so ax murders in the second and some fairly gruesome violence in the third, is perhaps Janiak’s most inspired choice.)

Honestly, most of what Janiak brings to Fear Street – the diverse casting, queer characters who get to fight for the people they love instead of being set up as sacrificial lambs, and a finale that at least attempts to comment on how those in power structure official histories to shape the present – is worthwhile.

But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that – as with parody – a genre homage can function as a project on its own terms, rather than just re-creating its source material with new actors and more advanced visual effects. And as watchable as Madeira is in the first and last chapters – and as engaging as Sadie Sink is as the hero of the second – I wound up feeling much the same way about the trilogy as I did about Stranger Things: it’s expensive and slick, but it still feels a lot like cosplay.

@normwilner

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