Fear Street Part 1: 1994 Review: Netflix Crosses Stranger Things With R.L. Stine in Hokey Horror Trilogy

Debuting July 2 and rolling out a fresh installment every Friday for three weeks, Netflix’s new “Fear Street” trilogy slices and dices R.L. Stine’s other book series — less popular but slightly more grown-up than the fright-meister’s best-selling “Goosebumps” franchise — into three feature-length horror movies, each one detailing a different bloodbath in small-town Shadyside.

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” takes a page from “Stranger Things” as director Leigh Janiak appeals to audiences’ near-past nostalgia, evoking a time when landlines and shopping malls were still a thing. The strategy supplies an intriguing retro veneer to an otherwise generic showdown between several misfit teens and their waking nightmares. Set two years before Wes Craven’s “Scream” clued horror fans into the genre’s most enduring clichés, “Part 1” faithfully plays by certain codes while bending others.

For example, a young woman bites it in the stylized opening scene (set in and around an atmospherically lit B. Dalton bookstore), but instead of dying in vain, she manages to unmask the black-cloaked, skull-faced creep who’s been stalking her. Moments later, this bad guy is shot by Sheriff Nick Goode (Ashley Zukerman), which suggests the ensuing mayhem will have to get creative, since the killer has been killed at the outset.

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A dense opening-credits montage samples newspaper clippings from previous decades, wherein a pattern of spirit possession and murder emerges: It seems that Shadyside — which TV reports describe as the crime-ridden sister city to upscale Sunnyvale, “one of the safest and wealthiest communities in the country” — has a history of witch-related mischief dating back to 1666 (when “Part 3” is set).

This first movie channels vintage slasher films while serving up a more contemporary ensemble of queer and nonwhite teens — precisely the kind of characters who typically get axed, hanged or otherwise offed early in a horror movie. Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) are a Black brother-sister duo; she’s hot for Sunnyvale cheerleader Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch), introducing an unexpected lesbian element; Asian American valedictorian Kate (Julia Rehwald) deals drugs on the side; loose cannon Simon (Fred Hechinger) is all kinds of weird.

After pulling a stunt that sends a car full of rival Sunnyvalers off the road, these rejects unleash a gnarly witch’s curse whereby a handful of the area’s most notorious killers reemerge to seek fresh blood. The trouble all traces back to someone named Sarah Fier, who will no doubt be properly introduced later in the trilogy. For now, she’s little more than a name evoked (presumably the source of the series’ as-yet-unexplained “Fear Street” moniker).

The movie’s supernatural elements operate by a sketchy kind of logic, in part because Janiak and co-writer Phil Graziadei diverge from the familiar mythology of disgruntled spirit movies. But it can be frustrating to watch the main characters — various shades of obnoxious, yet consistent in their way of overacting — kick around theories about how to appease the witch, only to see their plans go sideways time and again. (It’s like that swimming pool scene in “It Follows” where the kids set an elaborate trap that doesn’t go at all as intended.)

A source of potential alarm, this is the second Netflix movie in less than a month (the other being “Awake”) in which assisted suicide is presented as a viable strategy to escape certain death — a bizarre and potentially irresponsible example to set. Would anyone you know agree to snuff herself in order to survive? If audiences were to watch the film without sound, they’d be hard-pressed to explain what was going on in the climax, which features some shockingly graphic violence, following a bizarro montage in which the teens “all go to pound town,” as Simon puts it.

“Fear Street” may look like countless horror movies that have come before, but it’s desperately trying to be original, and that may pay off in the two installments to come (focusing on the Camp Nightwing massacre and Sarah Fier’s 17th-century origin story). Frankly, the backstory of this project seems more compelling than the plot we get on-screen: With only one previous feature under her belt, Janiak convinced the producers to let her tell her story (loosely inspired by Stine’s) across three films, shooting everything back to back. It’s all intended to tie together, although there will be plenty who see “Fear Street” as a dead end from the outset. Only time will tell.

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