As someone who absolutely adores slasher movies and considers Wes Craven’s Scream to be one of the best and most consistent franchises ever committed to celluloid, I was the prime audience for Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street: 1994, which lovingly pays tribute to Scream in a variety of ways (including Marco Beltrami’s score from the original film), but also sets out to do its own thing as well. And while Fear Street: 1994 absolutely nails all of its slasher tropes and fully embraces mid-’90s nostalgia to a T, what I really appreciated is how the story is also infused with a supernatural bent, making it a standout effort from Janiak and everyone involved that does a brilliant job of creating something of a horror-centric cinematic universe utilizing the works of R.L. Stine as its backdrop (but doesn’t pick a specific story from the Fear Street series, either).
Fear Street: 1994 opens at the Shadyside Mall with a brutal killing that is chalked up to yet another Shadysider going off the rails, which apparently happens far too often in the troubled town that lives in the shadow of Sunnyvale, the far more prosperous and thriving community just a few miles away. As it turns out, the misfortunes of Shadyside began all the way back in 1666, and the town’s gruesome history has a way of repeating itself time and time again throughout the centuries that followed. This time, the malevolency arrives in the form of the skeleton-clad killer who is hellbent on hunting down teens Deena (Kiana Madeira), Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch), Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), Kate (Julia Rehwald), and Simon (Fred Hechinger), who all begin to suspect that the legend of a witch’s curse on Shadyside might have some truth to it after all, and they set out to find a way to stop it once and for all.
For many storytellers, there is a very fine line between homage and thematic larceny, but I think that with Fear Street: 1994, Leigh Janiak and her co-writer Phil Graziadei do a fantastic job of creating something here that clearly wears its influences very lovingly on its sleeve, but also sets out to do something wholly unique at the same time, and it totally triumphs in that regard. I also think the way that Janiak and Graziadei are able to bring together supernatural elements within the confines of a slasher pastiche adds a lot to the story, and it is a successful merging of these two subgenres that don’t always work together so seamlessly (Nightmare on Elm Street got it right and set the bar for other filmmakers, but something like AHS: 1984 struggled at times to make this kind of storytelling merger work).
And as mentioned, there are a ton of components in Fear Street: 1994 that clearly tip their hat to the Scream series (specifically the first film), and I absolutely adore any movie that lovingly pays tribute to the movie that ended up defining that era of horror and redefining what genre storytelling could achieve as well.
Beyond that, Fear Street: 1994 also feels like a love letter to the era in which it is set that also perfectly captures the frustrations and struggles of being a teen at that time. I know, because I was a sophomore/junior in 1994, and there’s so much about how these characters react to the teenage experience in general that just rang so completely true to me, especially the relationship woes between Deena and Samantha that become the emotional anchor for the story in Fear Street: 1994. The film also has a ton of impressive set pieces that were surprisingly brutal, including one horrifically gruesome death scene that features what will probably end up being one of the best kills of all of 2021. I know that the Fear Street books were always intended for older fans than Stine’s more popular Goosebump series, but I was wholly surprised and thoroughly pleased by just how hard Janiak leans into the horror elements throughout 1994. This might be a story about teens, but I think horror fans of all ages are going to dig what Janiak accomplishes here.
If forced to nitpick, there are a few things about Fear Street: 1994 that aren’t quite as successful as everything else going on in the movie. The first is the film’s array of needle drops. Don’t get me wrong, hearing songs from the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Bush, Cowboy Junkies, Portishead, Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, Soundgarden, The Pixies, White Zombie, and even Sophie B. Hawkins (who I haven’t even thought about in decades) was a real treat, but sometimes the incorporation of these songs into the sonic landscape of Fear Street: 1994 are a bit jarring and end very abruptly as well, which felt at odds with what was happening on screen. Don’t get me wrong, I loved hearing so many of my favorite songs from my teen years, I just wish they were utilized a bit more smoothly as a whole.
I also feel like the ending of Fear Street: 1994 might end up being a moment of contention for some fans, as it doesn’t quite resolve everything it sets out to do. Admittedly, that’s mostly due to the fact that this is the first in a trilogy of stories, so it makes sense that there will be some carryover between the different entries (I’m being vague here just because viewers will understand this more once they actually see how everything unfolds in 1994, and I don’t want to ruin that experience for anyone). I was mostly okay with the lack of resolution, but admittedly, I would have enjoyed seeing something more definite when it came to these characters and this story specifically.
I’ll be the first to admit that growing up, I was more of a Christopher Pike reader than I was of R.L. Stine’s works (I read a few of the Fear Street books in middle school, but fell out with the series once I hit my high school years), so the best possible compliment I can pay Fear Street: 1994 is that it made me immediately want to go back and immerse myself in this book series now as an adult (even if this film doesn’t directly tie to any one specific Fear Street story from the novels). I think Janiak and her cast do a fantastic job of creating a super fun, gory, and entertaining slasher that dares to do something different, and I’m extremely excited to see what’s to come in the next two films (which arrive on Netflix later this month).
Also, Fear Street: 1994 opens with a character named Heather (played by Maya Hawke) working at a B. Dalton bookstore, which was one of my favorite places to buy books as a kid, so I will be the first to admit that those little details during the introductory scene immediately won me over, and thankfully the rest of the film was able to live up to what it achieves in its opening scene.
Movie Score: 4/5