For viewers who went into the recently concluded “Fear Street” trilogy corpse-cold, the most surprising fact about the Netflix films may be that they were initially intended for theatrical release. Sure, there were some hints along the way, such as the casting of name-brand stars in supporting roles (such as Gillian Jacobs and Maya Hawke) or the extravagant music budget, which helped firm up the Clinton- and Carter-era milieus of the first two movies.
But “Fear Street” – more inspired by than adapted from R.L. Stine’s YA horror book series – fundamentally feels like a TV show: Its serialized mystery about the 17th-century origins of the town of Shadyside’s fabled witch’s curse doesn’t just connect the installments, but becomes the central hinge of the time-hopping triptych.
As a TV critic and lifelong fan of the medium’s seemingly limitless capacity for creative expression, I don’t think it’s an insult to compare a film (or a series of them) to television. There’s no inherent reason a movie should be better than a TV show, or vice versa. You could probably name off the top of your head five shows you’d prefer watching to, say, “A Quiet Place Part II,” just as you could five films that aren’t as good as the worst episode of “Halt and Catch Fire.” It’s not necessarily a value judgment to note that, especially in the current era of IP and brand-recognition pressures, film franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe have relied on storytelling conventions traditionally associated with TV, like cliffhangers and recurring characters, to hook audiences.
The horror genre has an even longer history of this practice, of course. In 2019 alone, there were expansions of the cinematic universes of Chucky, “The Shining,” “The Conjuring” and Stephen King’s “It.”
Leigh Janiak, who directed and co-wrote all three “Fear Street” installments (giving the trilogy a visual and narrative consistency often missing in horror continuations), recently told Indiewire that her films, too, could serve as a leaping-off point for many more follow-up stories, i.e., sequels. “You have the canon of our main mythology that’s built around the fact that the devil lives in Shadyside,” she said, “so there’s also room for everything else.”
That’s largely the problem with “Fear Street,” which spends so much time establishing its potential cinematic universe that there’s little to recommend about the individual films.
The first installment, “Fear Street Part 1: 1994,” follows high-schooler Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her little brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), who whiles away his afternoons in primitive online chat rooms discussing the periodic mass murders in Shadyside. Deena’s initially more preoccupied by her heartbreak over Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), her closeted ex-girlfriend who’s recently joined a cheerleading squad in Sunnyvale, Shadyside’s safer, Whiter, more affluent neighbor. While Shadyside reels over yet another massacre – this time at a mall, natch – Deena, Sam, their friends (Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger) and tagalong Josh attempt to figure out how and why they’re being stalked by the undead mall killer, along with the other mass murderers that have marred their town’s history.
That puzzle continues in the following film, “Fear Street Part 2: 1978,” a summer-camp slasher told largely in flashbacks by Jacobs’s final girl (the heroine who survives a horror film), and finds resolution in the trilogy capper “Fear Street Part 3: 1666,” which recasts many of the young actors from the first two movies in a tale about a paranoid Puritan settlement that blames black magic for its recent hardships.
Janiak and her co-writers, Phil Graziadei, Zak Olkewicz and Kate Trefry, follow two trends in contemporary horror: subverting the social conservatism long associated with traditional slashers (the “bad girl” who has sex dies, the Black character is killed first) and endowing the terrors on screen with sociological allegory (a not-at-all-new trope that’s nonetheless found refreshed interest after the mega-success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”).
The road to “Fear Street” is certainly paved with good intentions. The series has been met with celebratory cheer about the fact that it centers on a lesbian romance and that its queer lead of color is motivated by her efforts to reverse her ex-girlfriend’s possession. The films are very nearly kind to their Black characters – as much as a horror story can be – and there’s special attention paid to difficult relationships between young women, including the thorny sisterhood at the heart of “1978.”
But because so much of the trilogy is dedicated to expositional scenes laying down the foundations of Shadyside’s history, there’s too much that’s admirable in theory and flat on screen. Deena and Sam’s romance, for example, is a push-pull between two paper-thin characters whose relationship never gains the contours that make you care about its survival. There’s a similar lack of lived-in-ness in the Shadysiders’ endless nattering about life on the wrong side of the tracks, which seems to have no bearing on their day-to-day existence (other than one would-be-valedictorian character’s ludicrous secret life as a drug dealer). And while teens in horror movies seldom bear any resemblance to real-life teenagers – many adolescents’ first response to being met with the sight of a dead body would be a tear-filled call to mom – the characters are so devoid of any interpersonal history with one another that Deena is somehow nonplussed by the revelation that her best friend is interested in her baby brother. (Demonic possession seems far more believable.)
There’s even less characterization for the killers, who are presumed to be under the witch’s thrall. Shadysiders treat the rumors of a curse like a fairy tale – only children or nut jobs would take it seriously – but there’s no other explanation for why ordinary residents with no history of violence suddenly turn to mass murder. That theory turns out to be wrong, but that doesn’t give “Fear Street’s” parade of knife-wielding killers any more depth or dimension.
“Fear Street” is, of course, a ’90s nostalgia delivery machine above all else, armed with Super Soakers, CK One perfume and glaring neon offset by black light. (The effect is more “oh, I remember those” than any particular joy or reinvention in their re-emergence.) Janiak has cited “Scream” and “Halloween” as influences, but the trilogy’s final scenes, which bring the action back to 1994, feel more like an iteration of “Home Alone,” with mindless stabbers taking the place of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Those two might not have had any brains, either, but at least they had some personality.
Perhaps “Fear Street” feels so relatively lifeless because there’s already a horror franchise that’s been queering and feminizing the genre – and doing so with top-tier actors and unfailing visual brio – for the past 10 years. FX’s “American Horror Story” has always been a mixed bag of remarkable performances, vicious wit, gory gusto, willful bad taste and questionable story choices, but Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series has been doing horror franchise-ification right for a decade by keeping the through line that connects each new season to its predecessors spider-web-light.
And now, Murphy and Falchuk have created a supercharged version of their own show with the spinoff “American Horror Stories,” which debuted last week on FX on Hulu. The series, which will feature new stories with each episode (rather than every season), is off to a promising start with “Rubber(wo)Man,” its two-part premiere. Set in the “Murder House” where the first iteration of “American Horror Story” took place, the definitely lower-budget but winkingly fun episodes channel the juiciest elements of that season, a barbed sendup of Los Angeles narcissism with a love-hate relationship to Old Hollywood and a deliberately queasy teen romance fueling the bloody antics.
Like “Fear Street,” “Rubber(wo)Man” centers on a lesbian romance between teenage girls – Scarlett (Sierra McCormick), a red-bobbed Velma by day, vixen by night, and, initially, popular girl Maya (Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael). A surprisingly fertile proving ground for beneficiaries of Hollywood nepotism, the franchise sees Jackson (admittedly, in a tiny role), as it did previously for Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts and Billie Lourd. (All three have appeared in multiple iterations of “AHS,” which often repurposes its cast members for new roles.) The wooden Kaia Gerber, aka Cindy Crawford’s younger child, fares less well as Scarlett’s other love interest, a ghost trapped in the Murder House who has to decide whether to kill the teen so they can spend eternity together or give her the chance to grow up and risk letting her slip away.
Whatever “American Horror Story’s” (many) shortcomings, its self-aware humor was never one of them. “Stories” inherits this knowing drollness, which is why Scarlett is also haunted by a gimp suit and eventually revealed to be just as fine a fit for it as its previous occupant. Her two dads (Matt Bomer and Gavin Creel), flippers who’d hoped to make a quick buck by cashing in on the Murder House’s notoriety, have their cynicism outmatched eventually by a contractor (Aaron Tveit) who couldn’t be more blasé about the cadavers they find mid-renovation. That blithe sociopathy, too, is an import from “American Horror Story” – and as apt an illustration as any that, when it comes to horror franchises, less is often more.
– – –
“Fear Street” (three films) is streaming on Netflix.
“American Horror Stories” (seven episodes) streams Thursdays on FX on Hulu. New episodes stream weekly.
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