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  • Writer's pictureZachary Zanatta

"Fear Street:' Netflix's Failed Horror Event

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

Fear Street is a collection of three movies, spanning over three centuries, released over the span of three weeks in 2021. Netflix advertised this as more of an event rather than a film series, something I found incredibly interesting. One big, planned, summer horror event, the likes of which we haven’t seen since… ever? At least not to this degree. As a huge horror fan, seeing Netflix put in so much work for a slasher franchise was exciting, could this be what horror needed to break back into the mainstream? Turns out... no. Fear Street is a trilogy of bloated, forgettable, contrived, horror movies that commit the worst sin a horror movie can accomplish, playing it safe. I’ll preface this by saying that I haven’t read any of the original Fear Street books, so my criticisms are based purely on what I see in the movies.

I’ll start with the first of the trilogy, Fear Street: 1994. Following a ragtag group of teens as they uncover sinister supernatural secrets hidden within their small town, 1994 is painfully unoriginal. Almost everything, including the aforementioned plot, feels excessively similar to Stranger Things. Nostalgic brand placements, excessive use of licensed music, out of style fashion and technology and the rebellious nature of teenagers are all part of the backbone of 1994 and are also what made Stranger Things such a colossal hit. What 1994 lacks though, is the heart and interest behind Stranger Things. It feels very empty, like a corporate version of a beloved property. It had potential but 1994’s insistence on appealing to the masses ends up completely sapping 1994 of all creativity and identity.

Characters and plot elements don’t mix and it’s clear that many ideas were stitched together to meet some quota. For example, Deena and Sam’s relationship is extremely shallow. Deena is angry at Sam for moving away for a better life but in the end, Sam apologizes for her actions...but why? Her character did nothing wrong! The characters make up purely to add another romance to the already paper-thin character drama. That way there’s another couple for the general audience to root for. Aside from Sam and Deena, 1994 has contrived political commentary, artificial drama and what I like to call “trailer cinematography”, which is cinematography that does nothing special except for a few times in order to create enough footage for a trailer. There are interesting concepts at play, but they’re all smothered by simplistic and easily digestible minutiae.

Part 2: 1978 fares no better than the first installment. Nearly every single criticism I had with 1994 can be applied here as well. It comes off as lazy, pandering to every single demographic possible all at once. 1978 swaps out the neon grittiness of horror from the 90’s with the classic simplicity of slashers from the early 80’s. Like 1994, the parallels with older horror sometimes feel like a cheap copy rather than an homage. I personally love this era of horror and I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of the homages worked for me. The setting and antagonist are fun and reminiscent of the classic summer camp slashers of the past. But it seems like the trade-off for atmosphere is good writing. The story gets quite a bit worse; the Sarah Fier storyline isn’t expanded upon in any way and the plot of 1978 hardly contributes to the overarching Fear Street narrative. The characters also come across as terrible. They feel two-dimensional and whiny, and similar to 1994, every single one needs some forced romance or backstory. The overstuffed drama ends up stretching my interest in these characters way too thin and I end up not caring for any of them. 1978 is just as formulaic and predictable as its predecessor, albeit, having a little bit more fun with itself.

Part 3: 1666 is the best of the bunch, but it’s still far from a good movie. The setting of colonial America during the height of witch paranoia was perfected in Robert Eggers' The VVitch, and 1666 seems to completely blunder the execution. It has similar music and set design, but the abysmal acting (particularly the accents) and even worse lighting saps the atmosphere of any realism or tension it creates. The decision to use the actors from the first two films as stand ins for characters from 1666 is extremely bold and I admire it quite a bit. Unfortunately, the 1666 characters are just as bad.

Sarah Fier has an incredibly interesting backstory, forbidden love with another woman that results in her wrongful murder, that’s an amazing concept! The issue is, Sarah Fier is an identical character as Deena, and as mentioned before, Deena as a character, sucks. They waste time investing us in yet another romance that’s indistinguishable from Deena and Sam, except this one goes nowhere. It’s like watching the exact same story play out with minor changes in costume design and setting, simply put, it’s a waste of time. Finally, about halfway through 1666 we return to 1994, and it’s an absolute riot. Fear Street finally lets loose and has fun, resulting in a 20-minute ecstatic free for all in a shopping mall. Sure, the characters are still bad and the strong idea for a twist villain devolves into the cartoonish evil of the twist villain from Zootopia, but for a few brief moments, Fear Street becomes the summer horror extravaganza we were promised.

So, that’s Fear Street. Were they terrible? Not necessarily. Were they good? Absolutely not. It leaves me asking, what went wrong? Now, I’m no professional critic nor filmmaker, but I have an idea of what made Fear Street such a lukewarm mess. Horror is a polarizing genre, arguably the most polarizing genre in film. There will never be a horror movie everyone will love, not because they’re bad, it’s just not possible. The Shining and The Thing were both critical and commercial flops, the entire slasher subgenre is reviled by most critics, and it seems like there will never be a verdict on whether found footage is proper cinema. Why? Because horror is unapologetic. The mark of a true horror masterpiece is an utter disregard for critical and commercial success. Horror is the pinnacle of unmerciful filmmaking, the essence of horror is to make the viewer feel scared and uncomfortable, so why should horror try to appeal to the masses?

Fear Street wants to be the people’s horror. A horror movie that every single person can agree upon, regardless if you’re a fan of the genre or not. Fear Street takes minimal risks and tries to mimic every other successful property on Netflix. Instead of making a good horror series, they tried to make a series that everyone liked, regardless if they took any risks or not. It didn’t try to be brave because it knew it didn’t have to be, as long as it checked off all the boxes of what’s popular. It’s sad to see what’s become of big budget horror in the past few years and Fear Street is a prime example of the simplistic and boring content being manufactured for the masses. I would say that Netflix tried and failed, but it doesn’t really seem like they tried. For the time being, if you want good modern horror, stick with the indie scene.

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