Boring, Generic, Bloodless And Derivative

There’s a fine line between homage and derivative pablum that Netflix’s new horror-slasher, Fear Street: 1994, stumbles all over in its 1 hour and 47 minute run-time. The nods to genre classics like Scream and Blair Witch are frequent and more than a little on-the-nose. Alas, they only serve to remind us how much better those films were, made by filmmakers with vision and style.

I have not read the R.L. Stine books upon which this film is based, so I go into this review—and the film trilogy itself—with a fresh set of eyes. While some critics and fans may watch the movie with the books in mind, I was—prior to watching the movie last night—a Fear Street virgin. With that in mind, let’s see why Fear Street: 1994 fails as a slasher flick in almost every single way.

Some spoilers follow.

How To Make A Slasher Film Boring

Fear Street: 1994 takes place in a town called Shadyside, a small American hamlet that sits next to the much wealthier, much-less-cursed town of Sunnyvale. Shadyside has been home to countless bizarre mass murders over the decades, yet this propensity toward wanton acts of savagery hasn’t done much to prepare its citizenry for violence. Be prepared, the Boy Scouts of America tell us. Shadyside did not get the memo. As with so many horror movies, our cast of naïve heroes is monumentally unprepared for what’s to come, though they’re nonetheless shockingly resilient to the impending slaughter. The only characters in this story less prepared are its bumbling villains.

The premise goes something like this: Shadyside has been cursed by a witch from the 17th century (who we’ll surely learn more about in Fear Street: 1666, the third part of Netflix’s new horror trilogy which comes out later this month). This curse is jotted down in a goofy rhyme that details how “good men” are ensnared by the witch’s powers and bedeviled into becoming psychotic killers. This includes “good women” as well, as Fear Street: 1994 is nothing if not inclusive. There are hints at certain characters being aware of the deeper mystery—a sheriff drops a note through a dilapidated doorway at one point that cryptically intones “It’s happening again”—but the film’s mystery is anything but mysterious.

The film begins with Maya Hawke’s character, Heather, working in a mall bookstore late one night after almost everyone has gone home. Why the bookstore is last to close up shop may be the real mystery. Or why the mall looks identical to Stranger Things—though one can’t help but wonder if director Leigh Janiak being married to Stranger Things co-creator Ross Duffer has something to do with it.

That also helps explain Stranger Things alumni Maya Hawke’s presence in the film, serving as the Drew Barrymore analog in just one of many parallels to Scream. Like the various other callbacks to Wes Craven’s introspective 1996 slasher, this one only serves to remind us that the Barrymore opener was a more frightening, more original, and more iconic version of pretty much the exact same thing.

Where Stranger Things manages to pay clever homage to a number of 1980s’ pop fiction gems, Fear Street pales in comparison to its spooky influences. A soundtrack filled with 90s’ hits does its best to provoke the nostalgia centers in our brains, but the film never really feels like the 90s the way Stranger Things captures the 80s. For all its little 90s nods—stationary phones, old chat rooms—it could just as easily be set in 2021.

After the opening slash-fest, which already feels a touch muted in terms of blood and gore, we get to the meat of the story.

Deena (Kiana Madeira) is the Main Protagonist who we learn early on is heartbroken over a recent break up with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). The name Sam is intentionally gender-neutral, designed to make us assume that Deena is pining over a boy. Much is made of the “twist” that Sam is actually Samantha, as though queerness was some extraordinarily rare phenomenon in the mid-90s. As someone who attended high school in the 90s I can safely call shenanigans. Things may have changed a lot since 1994, but there were still plenty of gay teens out of the closet back then. I’m not diminishing the experience of Deena and Sam, only the film’s insistence at playing it up in such a heavy-handed fashion. Show don’t tell is writing advice that applies to inclusivity and representation as much as any other aspect of a story. Perhaps more so.

Deena’s younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) is the “nerd” in the group. He’s been researching the witch legend and is convinced that all these inexplicable and bizarre murders are connected. His peers remain perplexingly unconvinced. Sure, tall tales are hard to believe for a reason, but a town known as the murder capitol of America would surely lead to higher-than-usual levels of superstition among the populace.

Joining Deena and Josh are hard-headed cheerleader Kate (Julia Rehwald) and her goofy friend Simon (Fred Hechinger), polar opposites in almost every way. Kate is always serious, a natural born leader bursting with ambition. Simon is always joking around, even when people have just been murdered—a fact that very few at the school seem to care about. Indeed, a proposed candlelit vigil for Heather and the other murder victims is booed by Shadyside’s sociopathic high school student body. They’d rather just go to the football game and forget the whole thing. Truly, the 90s were a strange time—at least in Fear Street: 1994’s bizarre recounting.

An unfortunate accident on the road after said football game results in Sam getting injured and accidentally uncovering Sarah Frier’s grave. Bafflingly, the witch was apparently buried above ground. Go figure. Sam has a vision of the witch which is apparently a very bad thing, and the witch sends her ghastly henchmen to kill the unfortunate teen. Apparently the witch’s curse will sometimes result in totally senseless murder and other times it’s targeted specifically at those who have had the misfortune of a witchy vision. It’s all a little vague. But the bad guys are coming and we have Josh to drop some exposition and let’s not think too much about it, shall we? Surely soon the slashy stuff will save us from this dreadfully tedious movie…?

More Slashy, Less Talky

What follows is about what you’d expect. The killers come for our heroes. Said heroes have an uncanny—and largely undeserved—knack for escaping their clutches. They quickly come to the realization that the witch is after Sam and, with no help from the cops, they take matters into their own hands. Parents are strangely absent from most of this. Indeed, adults are strangely absent. A car accident involving a car and a bus features all the teens but no bus driver. It’s a small but peculiar omission.

All of this, I am sad to report, is horrifically boring. The most frightening thing about Fear Street: 1994 is just how tedious most of the film is. Yes, there are some good scary moments when the killers arrive, but these are remarkably few and far between. When the film’s final act picks up and some killing happens, it’s only shocking because it hasn’t happened sooner. Why wait so long to start killing off characters? The film is excruciatingly bloodless for a slasher flick. The handful of murders that do occur are over in a flash and neither very scary nor very innovative. Only one stands out and even there it felt like too little, too late.

Along with no parents and no adults, there are just weird little inconsistencies. Where are all the hospital staff? Why does the killer ignore some people but goes out of its way to kill the nurse at the front desk? Why does the female killer try to kill Simon when we see the other killers ignore everyone while pursuing Sam? Why do the kids keep splitting up, in the dark, when they know for a fact they’re being pursued by killers? Why is the witch’s body buried above ground and how does covering it up with leaves constitute “re-burying” it? The final plan the teens come up with involves fake-killing Sam in one of the most preposterous ways I can think of that, quite frankly, is more than a little irresponsible given the age of this film’s likely viewership and the dubious mental health state many teens find themselves in after a year of pandemic lockdowns.

Why Scream Works and Fear Street Doesn’t

I won’t spoil the ending, and I can’t in some ways since this is just Part 1 of a 3-part trilogy of slasher films. But I will say this: While I did enjoy the final twist, I also saw it coming a mile away. That’s not a huge deal. The twist in Scream wasn’t entirely out of left field either, and plenty of people saw that one coming, too. But Fear Street fails in so many ways compared to its most obvious inspiration that one can’t help compare the two. For one thing, Fear Street—in an attempt to pay homage to Scream—lost Maya Hawke in its opening minutes, an actor with more personality than the rest of the cast combined.

The reason the Barrymore scene worked in Scream is that we had a pretty compelling cast of characters/actors left to carry the film. Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy—Scream’s cast was nowhere near as diverse but both the actors and the script had more charm.

And perhaps Fear Street’s cast would be less dull with a more compelling, less derivative script, but this feels like Scream if it had been written for the CW.

Perhaps more importantly, Scream was a character-driven movie with villains that actually surprised and horrified us in the end. We had to grapple at least a little bit with the dark side of humanity. To the extent Fear Street is character-driven at all it’s gobsmackingly bland, only ever hinting at any sort of clever subversion of horror tropes. I’m happy that the cast is less lily-white than Scream, but Fear Street can’t hide its derivative script, awful pacing and dreary characters behind diverse casting and a queer romance. Diversity alone does not make an otherwise mediocre film good. While Get Out leaned into issues of race in twisted, often disturbing ways that helped heighten that movie’s tension and fear factor, Fear Street makes no similar use of the slasher genre to say anything at all about sexuality or representation.

Fear Street: 1994 is entertaining at points, but mostly it’s clumsily overwritten.

Deena is mad at her ex-girlfriend for moving to Sunnyvale (as though it’s up to a high schooler not to move when her parents do) and there are several teary, melodramatic confrontations between the two that feel less like compelling character interactions and more like lazy filler. Sam’s later confession that she’s been “running” from the truth or some-such nonsense feels forced. None of this is melodramatic enough to count as cheese, mainly because it’s all painfully earnest. Slashers can be melodramatic, but that melodrama should never try so hard to be sincere. The pair’s later defiance of Sam’s homophobic mother who shows up to look angry and uptight and disappears just as quickly, feels like tacked on queer representation-by-way-of-Karens than anything meaningful.

Here’s an idea: Have gay people in your slasher flick without trying so hard to let everyone know how brave it is to have gay people in your slasher flick. Activism-as-narrative is never a wise choice.

Fear Street: 1994 is also garishly overproduced.

Even when it looks good—and it does—there’s a polished, plastic sterility about it that’s missing whatever secret sauce the Duffer brothers use to capture 80s’ nostalgia. The costumes, at least, should transport us to the 90s but aside from dated Letterman jackets, there’s little her to anchor us in time.

I mean, it’s all just fine. The cinematography, the set design, the editing. Everything is fine. It all looks good in a highly produced, utterly unimaginative way. The town, its denizens, the set-pieces, it’s all entirely forgettable. I couldn’t tell one house from the next. Sunnyvale’s garish mansions are cartoonishly gargantuan compared to the rundown Shadyside shacks, but the teens from each school all look and act and dress the same. None of these places feel lived in. Despite the slow pacing ostensibly designed to establish character and flesh out the world, in the end it’s all dreadfully, inescapably generic.

Verdict

  • Bottom-Line: Netflix’s new horror-slasher flick ‘Fear Street: 1994’ is boring, generic and derivative, a bloodless homage to the far better films it tries so hard to emulate.

I often talk about how shaving 20 minutes from a film would help the pacing and make for an overall more enjoyable experience for audiences, but Fear Street: 1994 isn’t particularly long and cutting 20 or 30 minutes wouldn’t solve its most glaring problems. You can’t make us care about these flat, uninteresting characters by improving the move’s glacial pacing. Even the funny-man, Simon, is not particularly funny.

The movie’s obligatory hookup scene—which features two pairs out of the five-person-crew making out, and four of the five teens topless—ends with Simon cracking a masturbation joke. Har har har. Give me Marty from Cabin in the Woods any day of the week. At least he had something to say. That the two pairs in question hooked up to begin with was less a matter of “will they?’ as “when will they?” because, like everything else in this treacly, preachy pretend slash-fest, the trajectories of these relationships are as predictable as the final “twist.”

If you’re looking for a generic slasher with generally unlikable-to-blasé high school-aged protagonists, a ho-hum supernatural villain and a handful of slasher “monsters” that are only mildly scary at best, definitely stream Fear Street: 1994 on Netflix. It checks off all the boxes.

If you want to watch actually enjoyable horror/slasher movies, look to the film’s inspirations instead—from Scream to The Blair Witch Project to Poltergeist or Halloween, there are plenty of far better scary movies to choose from. With both Fear Street: 1978 and Fear Street: 1666 landing later this month, I was looking forward to a trilogy of new slashers. Instead, the only reason I’ll tune in for the sequels is to write these reviews and hope that I’m pleasantly surprised.

Fear Street: 1994 has a designed-by-committee feel that infects everything from its casting choices to its costume design to its nostalgia-burdened plot. Far from a subversion of the genre or a fun homage to 90s’ horror, Fear Street: 1994 is derivative, shallow and painfully generic, playing it safe at almost every turn. Only its bloody endcaps save the film from utter mediocrity.

Score: ⭐⭐

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