Fear Street Part 1: 1994 has a lot of expectations to meet, even before it kicks off with a blood-smirked homage to Scream starring Maya Hawke as a bored teen working in a mall. The film is the first of a trilogy directed by Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), set to be released over the next few weeks on Netflix and each of them taking place in a different year and spread across decades and even centuries. It’s adapted, at least in spirit, from R.L. Stine’s popular teen horror stories, which feature older characters than their Goosebumps counterparts and marginally more mature content and scares. But most importantly, it’s a bold and bloody attempt to get Gen Z interested in a horror movie instead of a binge-able, horror show.
That’s probably why the trilogy sort of feels episodic by nature. Its baby-steps approach to easing Stranger Things fans into obsessing over the Fear Street canon mirrors how the movies themselves fit viewers with training wheels when it comes to terrifying gore. 1994 gets bolder and bloodier by the end, complete with one of the most memorable, gut-punching death scenes in any horror film this year, but it slowly builds up to this point with more manageable set pieces that gradually intensify with creativity—and violence.
1994 takes place in Shadyside, Ohio (same as the books), known as “Killer Capital U.S.A.” for its frequent, seemingly random murders. “Normal” people in Shadyside have an unfortunate tendency to “snap” and go on gruesome murder sprees. After a particularly hard-hitting incident, a few high school teens get caught up in a turf war with the neighboring Sunnyvale, a wealthy and drama-free community constantly looking down on the dysfunctional Shadysiders.
1994 revels in introducing its fresh scares organically.
After a series of unfortunate, spooky events, a ragtag group of these teens find themselves hunted by yet another killer, and to make matters worse, this one appears to be far deadlier and more unpredictable than what’s come before. Fortunately, these aren’t your stereotypical, hapless victims waiting to get got. Taking a note from other formative films of the era, 1994 essentially becomes a Goonies tribute living inside a 90s slasher.
The high school misfits at the center of the story include Deena (Kiana Madeira), a band geek who recently had a falling out with Sam (Olivia Welch) for ditching everyone to go live in Sunnyvale. Her younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), haunts early AOL chatrooms trying to theorize the truth behind the ritualistic Shadyside killings. And her best friends include Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), who deal drugs on the side, hoping to use their ill-gotten cash as a means of eventually escaping their doomed hometown.
The chemistry between these five leads is mostly impeccable, with each of them offering a different, but equally useful set of skills and insight to aid in bringing down what’s haunting them—the less said about this, the better, as the film revels in introducing its fresh scares organically. The obvious exception is Sam, who’s purposefully written to be the crux of the story and who brings everyone together, even though she’s not exactly the most interesting character onscreen most of the time. A few other notable side characters enter the fray, too, like a meandering sheriff (Ashley Zukerman) who might prove to be a little more impactful to the story in later entries.
The film is self-aware enough to subvert the usual conventions of its own genre, but it never leans too far into self-inflicted absurdity.
It’s maybe a little too easy to compare 1994 so quickly to Stranger Things, which addressed its love letter to Spielberg, King, and the 1980s. 1994 gives all of its heart to Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and of course, R.L. Stine. It captures the magic of being 16 again and experiencing a scary story that’s only slightly more disturbing than what you’ve read or watched before. And unlike Stranger Things, it doesn’t cheapen its character arcs, lose itself in lore, lessen the stakes, or avoid uncomfortable consequences. It highlights the true benefits of presenting this type of narrative as a self-contained film (or three) that can simply tell a complete story without the baggage of promising yet another season.
1994 is definitely an odd film in the sense that it’s self-aware enough to subvert the usual conventions of its own genre, but it never leans too far into camp or self-inflicted absurdity. Granted, the entire film is a big old romp, but a mostly grounded one that invites viewers to wonder what it’s like to live in a place like Shadyside. The film is sharp enough to embrace the pure enjoyment of horror without going too far, where nothing feels urgent or, well, horrifying. If this is the level of arcane mischief Janiak has in store for 1978 and 1666 soon after, then consider this watcher bewitched.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is now available to stream on Netflix. You can watch the official trailer here.