The Great Algorithm has decreed that there’s an audience demand for but two things: cinematic universes and Amblin-esque nostalgia. With that in mind, the adaptation of RL Stine’s hit YA series Fear Street, and the beginning of a gory cinematic universe, spanning the years 1666, 1978 and 1994.
First up is 1994; director Leigh Janaik’s slasher movie and extended Scream riff. The director’s history on the Scream TV series stands her in good stead here – Part One feels like a lost slasher film from the late nineties or early noughties. It’s good to see Janiak return to feature length cinema for the first time since 2014’s Honeymoon; with not just one film but an entire trilogy of them, no less. New Leigh Janiak movies: they’re like buses, and they all go to Fear Street, apparently.
The story starts off simple, but doesn’t stay that way. A mask-wearing killer is stalking the town of Shadyside (on-the-nose, but these are kids’ books, remember), offing its teenagers. Deena (Kiana Madeira) is on the killer’s hit list, but is quick to learn that there’s more at play than just some incel hacking up his classmates. Janiak juggles as many plot threads and killers as a season of American Horror Story (most notably its most recent offering, 1984), all roads leading back to the legend of an ancient, long-dead witch.
Where Stine’s Fear Street books were geared towards kids and teens, Janiak cannily ups the ante to match readers’ advancing age. The books are over thirty years old now – and many of those who read them in their youth, even older than that. This is YA fiction with an R-rating; gore, heavy petting and surprisingly entertaining swearing. While the dissonance is jarring, it’s a lot of fun. Some may dismiss it as a cynical exercise in nostalgia-bating – and they wouldn’t be all the way wrong – but Part One is more than the sum of its parts.
For all of the references to dial-up, landlines and old TV sitcoms, Part One stands on its own as a tremendously thrilling little slasher movie. The kill sequences are genuinely shocking, the violence brutal. At the same time, old slasher archetypes are updated with a diverse young cast and heartfelt romance. It’s easy to be cynical about the proliferation of cinematic universes and Stranger Things copycats. But when The Algorithm works? It works.