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[REVIEW] ‘FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994’ IS A ROLLICKING FRANCHISE STARTER (WITH ONE GLARING MISSTEP)

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FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994

Starring: Maya Hawke, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, and Benjamin Flores, Jr.
Story by: Kyle Killen and Phil Graziadei & Leigh Janiak
Screenplay by Phil Graziadei & Leigh Janiak
Based on the Fear Street series by R.L. Stine
Directed by: Leigh Janiak

*CW: This review contains mentions of violence and transphobia*

Much like many of you, I grew up with R.L. Stine.

Starting with the immensely readable Goosebumps and then venturing into his more “mature” works, Stine’s chillingly fun prose has just always been a part of my life in one way or another.

Now Stine makes the leap to the streaming screen in Netflix’s Fear Street Part 1: 1994 (2021), a stylishly mean adaptation of the smash-hit YA series Fear Street. Serving as the opening of a full-fledged trilogy, 1994 transports us back to the heady days of AOL chat rooms and cassette tapes while introducing a new generation of horror hounds to the cursed towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale… along with the powerful witch Sarah Fier, who holds dominion over their collections of killers from beyond the grave.

And for the most part, it’s pretty fun! It’s ghoulish, well-shot, and fast-paced. But it also manages to keep intact the beating heart that made the original books stand out. Centered around a group of social outcasts led by the electric pairing of Kiana Maderia and Olivia Scott Welch (one of horror’s rare, well-written queer couples), Fear Street Part 1: 1994 provides a fun mishmash of slashers, YA thrillers, and class-conscious politics with a liberal dash of 90s ephemera and needle drops.

I will preface this by saying a sudden spike of transphobia in the film’s middle does present a series issue. You’ll have fun with the film overall, but let’s start with what works. 

1994, both on a visual and narrative level, really swings for the fences. While the “lore” surrounding the towns and Sarah Fier’s curse can and does get knotty in parts, much of the film’s runtime is dedicated to clear spook-house energy. After a grisly opening inspired by Scream (1996), Fear Street Part 1: 1994 starts to lay out exactly how and why Sunnyside and Shadyside hate each other… and just how many lives have been claimed by the masked maniacs spawned by Shadyside, the “Killer Capital, USA.”

Those familiar with the Fear Street series will recognize a lot of these characters, including the love of my hellbilly heart, Ruby Lane. But the script, provided by series director Janiak, alongside screenwriters Kyle Killen and Phil Graziadei, really makes a point to be “user-friendly” when it can be. This accessibility also translates to the major set pieces, which provide plenty of fun gore and steadily building tension while barreling the film toward its masked killer-filled finale.

Like the prose series that inspired it, 1994 never loses sight of its characters, all of whom play their archetypes as real and as grounded as possible. We have our Ice Queen Cheerleader, played with a coy comedic coolness by Julia Rehwald. We have our Dorky Believer, played with a jangling but engaging nervousness by Benjamin Flores, Jr. We even get basically a skittishly funny Matthew Lillard analog in the form of Fred Hechinger, who provides 1994 with some of its best gags, like him telling a cop to fuck off while in full witch makeup.

This merry little band is led by the consistently watchable and achingly heartfelt performances of Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch, ostensibly the film’s “hero couple.” Queer relationships in horror are a true rarity. Doubly so a queer relationship that’s done WELL, but 1994 pulls it off. This is largely placed on Madeira and Scott Welch’s talented shoulders, and rightly so. Their performances display a careful touch and clear care for one another, providing the film a more fleshed-out, very welcome set of emotions amid all the slashing and red spreading.

Unfortunately, we still have to talk about Nurse Beddy.

Nurse Beddy is a minor character in the Fear Street series, popping up throughout multiple entries. While never explicitly stated, Beddy is coded as a female-presenting transgender woman who answers to feminine pronouns. She’s usually involved in Shadyside’s more dubious dealings and provides some quips for leads as they advance through the plot.

But that’s not the Nurse Beddy we receive in 1994. The film provides a damningly backwards character and sequence. Here, Beddy is presented as a fully masculine character, one who answers to masculine pronouns and is portrayed by cis-male TV staple Eric Mendenhall. I almost didn’t even clock that it was supposed to be her in the sequence, however, it quickly becomes apparent where it’s headed once it starts. Nowhere good, I can assure you.

Is this sequence enough to derail the entire movie? I don’t think so. But it absolutely is an instantly jarring, thuddingly tone-deaf bit that at best would have better-served audiences on the cutting room floor. It brings nothing to the final cut aside from a feeling of uncomfortable disconnection.

Here’s a novel concept: cast a trans woman to play the trans woman. We would still have to contend with the violence portrayed in the scene, for sure, but we wouldn’t have to first parse through the obvious transphobia of seeing a cis-het man portraying a trans woman.

Barring this obvious pitfall, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 really is a good time. It looks great, it’s funny, and it has, at its core, a very engaging set of characters contending with some bonkers horror. And it’s all topped off with a genuinely interesting hook for later installments to match their own period settings.

Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is not perfect, but it is a very solid start saddled with one bad sequence. Once you accept that, 1994 makes you feel exactly how you did back when you were huddled under your comforter, reading the series by pen-light while darting your eyes toward your door and window: scared, but in a fun way, and ravenous for the next chapter.

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FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994

7.4

A Killer (if a bit obvious) 90s Soundtrack

8.0/10

Major Wes Craven Vibes

10.0/10

A Genuinely Good Book-to-Screen Adaptation

9.0/10

One Bad Sequence That Smacks of Gender

1.0/10

GREAT Practicle Effects

9.0/10
Justin Partridge
justin@betweenthepanels.com
Lover of table top RPGs, prog rock, and anything with Walton Goggins in it. Find his other blathering at ComicsXF or THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
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