Like fresh entrails sewn into an old skeleton, the “Fear Street” trilogy is a new creature. Released on Netflix on consecutive Fridays, the three films that make up the event straddle the line between weekly television and the film franchise. This Big Guignol was an ambitious experiment for the streamer, and he succeeds most of the time: “Fear Street,” an engaging and rambling mini-franchise, plays as “Scream” meets “Stranger Things” built on a supernatural premise solid enough to maintain interest and suspense for nearly six hours.
Based on books by RL Stine, the “Fear Street” films are set in side-by-side suburbs. Shadyside is drab and downcast, full of cynical kids who work hard and play harder. Nearby, a golden glow falls on the sublime Sunnyvale, Shadyside’s richest and snooest neighbor. General ill will is dividing cities. But there’s a darker motive involved. Every few decades Shadyside is the scene of a mass murder, and each time the killer is a seemingly stable resident who just seems to be cracking up.
“Part One: 1994” opens with such a massacre. In a dismal after-hours mall, we meet our first victim in Heather (Maya Hawke), who makes a strong impression even though she doesn’t survive long. The story pivots to follow the hero of the trilogy, Deena (Kiana Madeira, with a bite), a cynical high school student who goes through a painful breakup with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). Bitter, but with lingering tender feelings, Deena soon discovers that a herd of zombies are after her ex. And when efforts to involve Sunnyside Police – including the cunningly named Sheriff Goode (Ashley Zukerman) – prove futile, Deena vows to protect Sam herself. His nerdy little brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and a few friends, Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), join them in interfering.
The rules of conduct for zombies in the “Fear Street” universe are not particularly consistent. Sometimes a mere trace of blood is enough for threats to sniff out their prey and pounce. In other scenes, they take a long time hunting down their teenage targets – long enough, say, for a pair of exes to reconcile and kiss. More methodical are the forces behind resuscitating zombies. Deena discovers that the Undead Slayers are the deceased mass murderers of Shadyside. And then there is the 17th century witch, Sarah Fier, who possesses their corpses and orders them to strike from beyond the grave. Why Sarah has held a grudge against Shadyside for centuries is one of the mysteries fueling Deena’s journey.
Leigh Janiak, who directed the trilogy and co-wrote all three screenplays, expertly adapted Stine’s stories for the screen. Using an abundance of playful genre tropes, Janiak gives the films a stylized energy. Motifs accompany overt references to classic horror films, such as when Simon cites a survival strategy he learned from “Poltergeist”. Her borrowed idea turns out to be a failure, inspiring Deena to proclaim that their urgency “isn’t like the movies.”
The line beckons to the audience, but somehow Deena is right. “Fear Street” is different. The trilogy eschews the catastrophic sobriety of recent horror hits like “Bird Box” and “A Quiet Place”, or the nihilism of the “The Purge” franchise. Shadyside and Sunnyvale represent opposing poles, but “Fear Street” is not an allegory of suburban privilege dressed in blood and guts. More so, it’s a mix of gore and nostalgia told through an endearing cast of rebellious teenagers.
These strengths are best illustrated in “Part Two: 1978”, the strongest of the trilogy. While “Part One” is chock-full of ’90s artifacts, including grunge outfits and Pixies mixtapes, “Part Two” takes a trip back in time for a summer at Camp Nightwing. Campers clad in short shorts crowd the cabin bunks while monitors just a few years old smoke pot and tune in to a “Cherry Bomb” soundtrack from the Runaways.
This part of the story centers on two sisters spending a summer at Nightwing: Ziggy (Sadie Sink), a sneering misfit camper, and the older Cindy (Emily Rudd), an arrogant Type A counselor. Summer “infused with macabre. The place becomes especially gruesome once the sun goes down and a killer – again, a cursed Shadysider – turns the Color Wars into red rampage. Carnage and a series of close calls follow, but the change of scenery ensures that “Part Two” never looks like a “Part One” clone. Actors help: The combined talents of Sink, Rudd and Ryan Simpkins, as Cindy’s co-advisor, Alice, turn the tension up a few notches.
The last part, “Part Three: 1666”, returns to an even older era, bringing us to the village of Sarah Fier. In a dramatic surprise, many of the cast of “Part One” and “Two” return in new 17th century roles, sporting colonial rags and a period speech that no one quite succeeds in. There’s less to propel the action here, and lacking pop artifacts, jargon, or fashion trends, Janiak struggles to recreate the bubbly, fun tone she’s achieved in previous films. It doesn’t matter. There are nasty mysteries to be solved, and by “part three” you feel safe following these survivors wherever they go.
The Street of Fear, Part 1: 1994
R side. Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
The Street of Fear, Part 2: 1978
R side. Duration: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
The Street of Fear, Part 3: 1666
R side. Duration: 1 hour 52 minutes. Watch on Netflix.