The 1990s were, in retrospect, a golden age for youth-oriented horror. While teens had been flocking to drive-in creature features for decades, the huge cohort of kids growing up in the relatively calm years between the Cold War and 9/11 sought scares in every medium. Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer launched franchises. While teens got hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, their younger siblings devoured Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon. Books by R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike circulated through schools faster than contraband.
Now, because all things ’90s are new again and the search for unmonetized intellectual property never ends, Netflix is revisiting that spooky era with a trilogy of movies based on Stine’s YA Fear Street novels. Perhaps less iconic than the author’s middle-grade Goosebumps books, this bloodier, more mature teen-horror series (which Stine revived in 2014) is set in fictional Shadyside—a normal suburb except for one street afflicted by a centuries-old curse.
Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak’s (Honeymoon) moderately entertaining, nostalgia-soaked Fear Street Trilogy shifts the premise slightly. By 1994, when Fear Street Part 1 takes place, Shadyside has been known for generations as a full-on hellhole. Meanwhile, its stuck-up high-school sports rival, the neighboring Sunnyvale, continues to flourish. Following a gory opening sequence in an after-hours mall—now, depressingly, a period setting—that calls to mind Drew Barrymore’s turn in Scream, a story coalesces around an angsty Shadyside band geek, Deena (Kiana Madeira), whose cheerleader ex-girlfriend (Olivia Scott Welch’s Sam) has moved to Sunnyvale and started dating a football player. When a thoughtless act of revenge awakens some dormant evil, Deena and her friends must dig deep into the dark history of their hometown in hopes of saving themselves.
This makes for some skillfully paced, pop-culturally literate, yet quite generic, slasher fare. Set at a sleepaway camp in 1978, the second and tighter of the two movies provided for review, which will arrive on Netflix on July 9, owes much to the Jason Voorhees origin story Friday the 13th. (The final Fear Street installment, slated for a July 16 release, will turn the clock all the way back to a colonial settlement in 1666.) Along with references ranging from Carrie to Castlevania, no-brainer music syncs abound: Nine Inch Nails in the ’90s, “Carry On Wayward Son” in the ’70s. A healthy Stranger Things contingent, including Sadie Sink and Maya Hawke, ensures that today’s teens will watch.
Although this formulaic approach is no surprise, I’d hoped for something less calculated. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by our current big-screen horror renaissance, with filmmakers like Jordan Peele, Ari Aster and Jennifer Kent making chillers that are just as thoughtful as they are entertaining. Fear Street is not that kind of movie. It’s nothing more, if also nothing less, than a competent streaming-algorithm impression of the forgettable flicks kids with fewer viewing options once rented on VHS.
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