The slasher-movie boom of the late ’90s was short-lived, a mere blip of throwback junk featuring WB stars getting sliced and diced by masked killers. But what’s old will always be new again in Hollywood, and just as Scream affectionately skewered (and briefly revived) the disposable body-count horror of the ’80s, so now is Wes Craven’s watershed hit inspiring its own wistful copycats. Fear Street Part 1: 1994, the first in a new Netflix trilogy of interconnected teen horror flicks, begins with a loose homage to that classic’s famed opening sequence, with Stranger Things star Maya Hawke as a book-store clerk talking into a cordless phone before hiding from a maniac in a grim reaper getup. It’s no shot-by-shot callback, but by the time the bad guy pulls his prey into a slow-motion, around-the-shoulder stab, and Hawke reaches up to unmask her murderer, it’s clear that we’re meant to be remembering the quick dispatching of another starlet from a famous acting family.
This is a film that sits at the intersection of multiple memory lanes. After all, its official inspiration is a fellow touchstone of the Clinton years: the Fear Street books, aimed at a slightly older readership than the one that gobbled up author R.L. Stine’s other hit YA franchise, Goosebumps. Kevin Williamson, screenwriter of Scream, clearly read his share of teen-courting paperbacks, including the one he adapted into I Know What You Did Last Summer. Stine, likewise, was capitalizing on the success of every wannabe Friday The 13th to hit multiplexes the decade he launched Fear Street. 1994 channels that legacy of give and take, between teen horror of the page and screen, into a polished nostalgia object of secondhand thrills, a throwback to a throwback.
Like Stine’s churned-out potboilers, which inserted high-school kids into whodunits or paranormal danger, the movie is set in a Midwestern town called Shadyside, appropriately named for both its ominous shadows and its dark underbelly of secrets. Dubbed “Killer capital U.S.A.,” thanks to a murder rate that would rival that of some big cities, Shadyside has a history of bloodshed that goes back centuries, to the days of Salem and its witch hunts—a lineage of horror that will be further explored in the two sequels coming next month. In 1994, that blueprint of backstory, uncovered by a group of teen friends, is really just an excuse to unleash a kind of all-star squad of supernatural stalkers; these blade-wielding heavies are awfully generic, like the attractions of a slasher parody or one of the more forgettable Halloween knockoffs.
The Fear Street movies didn’t start as Netflix projects (they were purchased, not produced, by the streaming service), but there’s still something rather algorithmic about this first installment. The soundtrack is pure I Love The ’90s sonic wallpaper, skipping from Bush to Sophie B. Hawkins to House Of Pain like a kid with an itchy finger on the FM dial. Bathed in pools of seductive neon, Shadyside is equal parts Hawkins, Derry, and Riverdale. Its population, meanwhile, is a diverse cross-section of slightly modified John Hughes archetypes: the cheerleader (Julia Rehwald), the geek (Benjamin Flores Jr.), the class clown (Fred Hechinger). That the token romance is between two girls (Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch) is among the plainest proof that this is not, in fact, a movie from the actual ’90s.
These kids don’t have a lot of personality. Their banter has the occasional, general cadence of comedy, but the jokes don’t materialize. They’re like earnest Zoomers in Gen X drag, saying stuff like, “We’ll go on a date, and eat cheeseburgers, and listen to The Pixies.” Slashers used to take a beating for their supposed puritanical politics, but the teens here are as clean and upstanding as they are “likable”: A mid-film sex scene in a locker room might be the most wholesome in the history of this disreputable genre, and the only time our Scooby gang messes with drugs, it’s amusingly integral to their plan to stop the supernatural menace. Where once these movies stopped just short of encouraging you to root for the killer by making his marks annoying and insensitive dolts, all the kids in Fear Street are basically model youth. Even the “obnoxious” one—this film’s equivalent of Scream’s Randy, in that he mentions Poltergeist and Jaws—would get the parental seal of approval.
The director, Leigh Janiak, who made the creepy indie horror movie Honeymoon before scoring this three-part gig, handles the assaults and evasions with a fair amount of slick panache. But the graphic violence somehow feels calculated, too; this is the rare horror movie that plays like someone added some gore to push the rating from PG-13 to R, rather than the other way around. It leaves you pining, against all odds, for a little of the over-the-top camp that Ryan Murphy brings to his slasher homages. 1994 opens with a cheeky reference to the Fear Street books themselves (like the Goosebumps movies, it appears to take place in a world where Stine’s work exists), as a shopper at the book store dismisses the source material as “lowbrow horror” and “trash.” But you’d never guess that watching this adaptation, a Scream scrubbed of danger. Forget the middle-aged fans it might irk. Don’t today’s kids deserve some trash of their own, instead of a tasteful substitution?