As a tween and in my early teens I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Scholastic Book Clubs’ flyer from school each month. I’d rifle through it and order such highfalutin things as the novelization of the Macaulay Culkin vehicle “The Good Son” or a Lamborghini poster.
What really got me amped however was R.L. Stine’s series of “Fear Street” books. (I especially dug “Fear Street Cheerleaders.”) “Goosebumps” was too childish for a lad of my “sophisticated” tastes. Conversely “Fear Street” felt dangerous and had explicit, R-rated levels of violence that my demented young mind thrived on despite them being written for children.
I was especially stoked when I heard that co-writer/director Leigh Janiak (“Honeymoon”) had signed on to make a trilogy of films inspired by “Fear Street.” The first of these – “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” – will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, July 2 with subsequent entries arriving at a clip of one per week the following two weeks – “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” (Friday, July 9) and “Fear Street Part Three: 1666 (Friday, July 16).
“1994” focuses on two towns – the depressed Shadyside and the prosperous Sunnyvale. (Think Springfield and Shelbyville à la “The Simpsons.”) Shadyside is periodically struck by shocking bouts of violence perpetrated by seemingly normal citizens who turn on a dime and are thrown into murderous fits of rage.
There are two types of teens in Shadyside – those who escape (Olivia Scott Welch’s Samantha Fraser) and those yearning to do so (Kiana Madeira’s Deena). Samantha moves from Shadyside to Sunnyvale when her parents divorce prompting a breakup between she and Deena.
Deena, smarting from the dissolution of her relationship, seeks solace in the company of her nerdy younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr. of Netflix’s “Rim of the World”) and her drug-pushing pals, the driven Kate (Julia Rehwald) and goofy grocery store employee Simon (Fred Hechinger from Netflix’s recent “The Woman in the Window”).
Adding insult to injury is Samantha’s newfound embrace of heteronormative culture by becoming a cheerleader and dating ass-squeezing Sunnyvale jock Peter (Jeremy Ford). Tensions escalate as a result, driving a deeper wedge between the two young women. Further complications and a mounting body count bring them back together.
Janiak, wife of “Stranger Things” co-creator Ross Duffer, has done one helluva job kicking off her trilogy with “1994.” She was born Feb. 1, 1980 and it shows. This is straight-up nostalgia porn for anyone who was a teenager in the early to mid ‘90s. The devil is in the details and Janiak and her collaborators did their due diligence.
The opening sequence takes place in a mall boasting stores such as Software Etc., B. Dalton Bookseller, Musicland and Gadzooks. TV shows such as “My So-Called Life” and “Unsolved Mysteries” are referenced. A character is shown sipping a Jolt Cola. I can’t even begin to fathom how astronomical the music licensing budget for the flick must’ve been with needle drops from Nine Inch Nails, Bush, Portishead, Cypress Hill, Radiohead, White Zombie, The Prodigy and the Pixies. The only anachronism I caught was the inclusion of Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” which released in ’95 as opposed to ’94.
This attention to detail wouldn’t mean a thing if “1994” didn’t connect emotionally and viscerally … thankfully it does. Janiak and her co-writer Phil Graziadei have provided her promising young cast with roles that make you care about their characters’ fates and the actors do an admirable job endearing themselves to the audience. It genuinely stings when these kids get got.
Speaking of murders, they’re surprisingly graphic and frightening here. Props to Special Makeup FX Designer/Department Head Christopher Allen Nelson (also known for playing The Groom in “Kill Bill” and Officer Francis in “Halloween” (2018)) and his crew for giving us glorious gore and grue. There’s a kill late in the picture involving a meat slicer that’s a real doozy and might just make ya woozy.
“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” will likely appeal to everyone from today’s teens to ‘90s teens now approaching middle age to teens at heart. Folks who’ve protested Stine’s work in the past or had issues with their kids listening to heavy metal and rap needn’t apply as they’ll likely be offended by the violence and sexual agency on display. (The fact that the film’s central romance is a queer one could also ruffle some feathers.) The movie calls to mind ‘90s horror offerings such as “Scream” and “The Craft.” The highest compliments I can pay the picture are that it made me wanna backtrack to catch Janiak’s directorial debut (the aforementioned “Honeymoon” starring “Game of Thrones” vet Rose Leslie), I’ll be on pins and needles anticipating the second and third installments (Luckily, I won’t have to wait long!) and that it would’ve made my 13-year-old R.L. Stine-loving self very happy.