Fear Street:1994 opens promisingly with a skull-masked slasher taking out a young, pretty bookseller at the mall. The movie then introduces five high schoolers who unwittingly unleash the malevolent spirit of the Fier witch when they disturb her bones lying in the forest. The witch was killed back in 1666, but has been the influencer behind inexplicable homicides for decades. The actors portraying the teenagers either bring too much or too little intensity to their roles, resulting in a “who cares” attitude when they are eventually stalked by resurrected killers from the past. 1994 Is competently directed, and I liked its day-glo aesthetic, but its reliance on Nineties music becomes a distraction. Not recommended.
The Fear Street Trilogy takes place over three different years: 1994, 1978 and 1666. The films were produced by Chernin Entertainment, who had a longstanding distribution relationship with Fox prior to its merger with Disney in 2019. The original plan was for the films to be released in the summer of 2020, but the pandemic forced Disney to pull them from the release schedule. Chernin ended its deal with (then) Disney, and entered into a partnership with Netflix, who promptly released them this summer. Based on the first movie in the trilogy, I suspect the history behind these films may prove to be more interesting than the movies themselves.
Part One:1994 starts out promisingly enough. A young girl named Heather (Maya Hawke, taking a break from Stranger Things) is closing up at the B. Dalton she works at, which is in a mall. (Bookstores. Sigh.) She chats with fellow mall employee Ryan, who she asks for a ride home. Shortly afterwards, Heather is attacked by a skull-wearing, knife-wielding stalker. Before she is stabbed to death, Heather pulls off the stalker’s mask to reveal Ryan, the same young man who was chatting her up before Mr. Skull-Mask appeared. Sheriff Nick Goode arrives on the scene and shoots Skull-Mask dead, but Heather dies anyway. (A knife to the heart will do that to you.) Ryan seemed friendly enough before, though. Why did he suddenly decide to become a slasher?
Turns out the town of Shadyside, Ohio is haunted by a witch named Sarah Fier who was executed for witchcraft back in 1666. The witch apparently has been behind every strange killing reported, at least as far back as newspaper clippings go. The Fier witch even is the basis for a nursery rhyme, which all of the kids seem to know by heart. Shadyside has been under the spell of the witch for so long, it is known as the murder capital of the world.
After the effective opening, 1994 focuses on a group of teenagers, who for most of the movie yell a lot. And when they aren’t yelling, they are screaming at the resurrected killers the Fier witch sent to kill them. The hero of the story is Deena Johnson, who channels all of her emotions through a fierceness (or intensity) that is off putting. She’s not just sad, she’s fiercely sad. And when she’s depressed, she’s fiercely depressed. She even manages to be fiercely horny at one point. Of the five leads, Kiana Madeira’s portrayal of Deena is the worst. The character’s emotions call out for subtlety, but instead we get shrill.
Deena’s younger brother Josh is a nerd and spends most of his free time on AOL chat boards. He also listens to White Zombie, wears an Iron Maiden tee-shirt and is African American. (I’d long believed that heavy metal was the sole purview of white guys, perhaps incorrectly. Hasty generalizations are definitely problematic.) Josh has been obsessing over the Fier for a long time, and naturally has a wall filled with newspaper clippings of said witch. According to the nursery rhyme, the witch possesses men (mostly men) to kill others out of revenge for her own death. Josh is convinced that Heather’s killer was possessed by the Fier witch, a hypothesis which unfortunately comes true.
Deena and Josh are friends with fellow high schoolers, Simon (Fred Hechinger) and Kate (Julia Rehwald). Simon and Kate are siblings, and also deal drugs to support themselves, their parents being AWOL. (I don’t remember any parents in this movie, by the way.) Simon is a stoner goofball, and with his deep voice, I kept thinking he was Miles Teller’s wise-ass cousin. Kate is a high school cheerleader, and Josh has a crush on her. She’s a cutie, so I can’t blame him there. Dream big, Josh!
Shadyside and neighboring school Sunnyside get together after Heather’s murder in what I think was a sympathy rally. (The rival schools reminded me of Riverdale and Baxter High from the Archie comics.) Deena tags along so that she can return a shoebox of stuff to the person who dumped her, which turns out to be…Samantha Fraser. Deena levels fierce accusations at her former girlfriend, and long-standing animosity between the schools results in a fight. The fight is taken to the road, where a group of Sunnysiders follow the Shadyside school bus in their car. Deena causes the car to crash, and Sam is injured but OK. Unfortunately, she bleeds on the bones of the Fier witch, which are lying in the forest. I don’t understand why the bones of a witch would be lying in the forest, where anyone could unsuspectingly stumble upon them, but whatevs.
The Fier witch takes a liking to Samanthay and calls upon several of her possessed murderers back to life to…kill Samantha, I think? The blood thirsty ghouls are attracted to her blood, and initially ignore the others. Deena, Josh, Samantha, Kate and Simon first try to burn the ghouls to oblivion, but that doesn’t work. In fact, the ghouls definitely start paying attention to all five of them after the failed plan, so good intentions and all that.
1994 is well shot and edited, and the day-glo colored set design brought a decidedly different look to what historically has been a dark and grimy looking genre. The acting is decent, except for the lead performance by Kiana Madeira, which just didn’t work for me. (I’ll stop shading her acting now.) Olivia Scott Welch’s performance as Samantha is the best in the movie. As Sheriff Goode, Ashley Zukerman does what he can with the extremely underwritten role, but ends up looking like a down on his luck Scott Valentine (or maybe David Naughton?)
1994 seems to have been heavily influenced by Captain Marvel. The soundtrack abounds with songs from the Nineties, which if you’re tired of the Eighties is an improvement. (Sorry, Stranger Things!) The music references are a bit much, though.You can check out this Spotify playlist when you feel like getting your Nineties on. Personally, one or two songs are plenty to clue me into what decade we’re in. A dozen is overdoing it. At one point, Deena mentions making out to The Pixies. Of all the things one could do to the music of The Pixies, I never would have thought making out was one of them.
Depressingly, 1994 reminded me a lot of Netflix’s horror series, Slasher. 1994 isn’t as bad as Slasher, but the bar is low for improvement there. In all honesty, you would be better served to watch the first season of the excellent Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Definitely avoid Slasher at all costs.
Horror movies routinely rip off other (better) horror movies, and 1994 wears its Scream and It influences on its sleeve. My problem with 1994 is not that its derivative, its that it doesn’t really do anything fresh with its sources of inspiration. Recent horror movies like Happy Death Day and Freaky were much more successful at tweaking the horror genre while honoring their roots.
R. L. Stine is very well known in the teen horror genre, but movie adaptations of his stories just aren’t scary enough to be the basis for a movie. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark just wasn’t scary. 1994 ups the gore and adds adult content (sex! swearing!), but the result is the same. I haven’t decided whether I want to continue watching this trilogy yet. Stay tuned.