The ‘Fear Street trilogy’, Netflix’s recent release based on R.L. Stine’s namesake novels, chronicles the events that happen in an American town named Shadyside. The three parts try to unfurl the dark secrets of the town during three specific years over a period of three centuries — 1994, 1978, and 1666.
The Fear Street trilogy is a modern make-over of the horror genre, where the slasher theme is redesigned to suit the sensibilities of the present generation, that can reclaim it as its own. In fact, interest in the horror genre itself is going to see a revival with this trilogy and much-anticipated slasher sequels — ‘Scream 5’ and ‘Halloween Kills’ — that established the genre and defined its typical conventions/rules, picked and planted as is, by films that followed.
More and more typical slashers, like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘Candyman’, ‘Black Christmas’, ‘Scream’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, have recounted teenage experience of horror, year after year, with gruesome murders, a ‘final girl’ and a masked villain with a backstory, who is unstoppable.
The ‘Fear Street’ trilogy features a few teenagers facing the onslaught of a curse that has haunted the town of Shadyside in Ohio for centuries, spurring a spate of killings from time to time, thanks to the supposedly daunting witch, Sarah Fier. She was hanged back in 1666 in a Union settlement, which later was divided into Shadyside and Sunnyvale. The dark and gory history of the former stands in strong, almost unbelievable contrast to its flourishing counterpart, indicating intriguing imbalance in space and time.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 and Part 2: 1978 hark back to classic slashers of the 70s-90s with their story build up around graphic gore, music, and other conventions from this horror sub-genre.
Part 3, however, brings a finale without sinking into a mere reminiscence of a slasher classic. It chronicles how an evil act can have a repetitive and resonating pattern over the years through blurring boundaries of time, and with connected stories.
So, does the Fear Street trilogy fit in the category of a clichéd slasher film? Let’s have a look:
The first two instalments of the trilogy had all the significant features of a classic slasher in terms of the presence of a psychopathic masked killer who stalks and murders several adolescents in a random and unprovoked killing spree, within the span of a single day.
However, for those still looking for arthouse sensibility and a refreshing perspective of a curse, rather than unreasoned horror riddled with jump scares, spooky transitions and gratuitous gore, Part 3 fits the bill.
Rather than creating a pretext in terms of sexuality, racism, financial exploitation; and manipulating it to present it as an extension of the mental trauma of the said unforgiving villain, the first two Fear Street films showcase the characters as they stand.
Deena (Kiana Madeira), her younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), her dope-peddling friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), and her-ex, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) all have nothing going on in the past that is of relevance to the narrative.
Even the murderers such as Ryan Torres (David W. Thompson), Ruby Lane (Jordyn DiNatale), and Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye) have perceivably no reason to kill. It is just the emotional bond they share with each other that puts all of their lives in danger. Every person involved is just a mere pawn, entangled in a horrific web spun by Sarah Fier.
Fans have their favourites depending on the way the killers kill or just how they look like as well as the sequences that startle and lock attention. The skull masked killer from Fear Street 1: 1994, is straight out of the well-known slasher star, Ghostface, from the ‘Scream’. Also, the protagonists are introduced through alternative 90s hits from Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, and the Cowboy Junkies like the usual slasher tradition.
However, unlike the films of the past, the killer’s identity is revealed right away in Part 1, rather than keeping it masked till the end. Also, Deena, Josh, and Sam are not your typical attractive protagonists, but ordinary characters who have an edge. It is this difference, and their teenage experiences centred on the bonds with each other, which will determine whether they last till the end.
Fear Street Part 2: 1978 is similar in setting to camp slasher films like ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Sleepaway Camp’; and in aura to ‘Halloween’ and ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’. The summer at Camp Nightwing turns out to be similar to a typical gory slasher, with more conventional tropes and characters, who have embraced their horrible destiny and reconciled to the fact that they are doomed.
However, the third instalment does not have a typical villain in Sarah Fier. Her story not only reveals the identity of the real killer, who does not wear a literal mask, but also shifts paths from the norm by clearing her name that is wrongfully dragged into the curse just because “she was different.”
While the first two instalments pay homage to the classic gore and replicate versions of needle drops; Part 3, rather than just being a deliberate and intentional copy of a classic slasher, depicts the actual time and setting where the action takes place in subtle grace, similar to ‘The New World.’
The brutal killing of Heather Watkins (Maya Hawke), a bookstore employee in a mall by a skull masked man in the opening sequence of Part 1, is reminiscent of Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker that shocked audiences years back setting the tone for the violence to follow.
Part 2 is the most gruesome with multiple scenes of killing and attacks at the camp by Tommy Slater whose axe sends many heads rolling. The sheer brutality of the scenes where the Berman sisters, Ziggy and Cindy, (Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd, respectively) are surrounded and slashed by multiple killers within no time, bear resemblances to ‘Friday the 13th’.
The third instalment is much less gory than two of its prequels, though the church scene where all of community children’s eyes are gouged and kept in a heap by the pastor is the most horrific of them all. Some scenes are disquieting, especially with regard to the violence inflicted on Sarah Fier by Nick Goode (Ashley Zuckerman) who is the real villain behind the curse that has fallen upon Shadyside.
Also, not to forget, a free-for-all battle royal between all the killers in 1994, as they slash and tear each other apart, is a sight to behold.
The first two entries of the Fear Street trilogy focus on the everyday struggles of the protagonists with themselves, in terms of their taboo relationships, and their unfortunate destinies tied to the rivalry between the rich and poor towns they belong to. Themes, however, take a back seat when multiple, masked and unmasked, killers come attacking. Life is what it is.
The third part, in line with the mystic films like, ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Crucible’, has its roots in occult where people are hanged just because they have an edge and they try to be themselves, or have same sex relationships, that are considered blasphemous.
The villain, through occult practices described in a book, makes a pact with Satan to sacrifice random Shadysiders to keep his hold on people and communities in the Union strong enough to last through his descendants over centuries.
The mysticism of the whole setting of Part 3: 1666 deepens with actors like, Sink, Rehwald, Flores Jr., and others in addition to the main lead, Madeira, from the previous films, play different characters (probably their ancestors) in the Union, further strengthening the fibre that connects these stories.
Slasher kill count
One of the most important characteristics of a typical classic slasher is the number of people killed during a rampage, excluding deaths caused by accident or any other reason or person.
The kill count of the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ franchise’s Leatherface stands at 15, Candyman’s Daniel Robitaille at 22+, Scream franchise’s Ghostface at 36, Hellraiser’s Pinhead at 35, Child’s Play’s Chucky at 47, Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger at 48, and Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees topping the list at 170.
Fear Street trilogy is not a typical slasher classic with just one main killer, but a selection of killers pitted against many unsuspecting victims from their own Shadyside crowd.
While Fear Street Part 1: 1994 had skull mask, Tommy Slater, and Ruby Lane who have about 15 victims in all, Fear Street Part 2: 1978 dedicates 10 kills to Tommy Slater, and Part 3: 1666 features about 10 killings by the Church pastor.
In conclusion, the Fear Street trilogy builds up the context for Sarah Fier’s story with typical slasher tropes, but with some innovation, to keep the settings true to their respective years, as shown by changing relationship dynamics as well as costumes of the protagonists.
The series culminates with a finale that comes across as a path-breaking witch drama that goes beyond slasher conventions. The witch, thought to be the reason behind the curse and misfortune of Shadyside, turns out to be a redeemer, rather than a killer, who follows her murderer over generations; and avenges herself and resurrects the town.
This aspect of witch-hunting, where the witch emerges as endearing and memorable, makes the series stand in contrast with classic slashers where a villain is a villain till the end.