The three-movie Netflix series is a whole new content model
Is Fear Street a movie series? Is A TV miniseries? A season of TV? It’s all of the above and none of the above at once. Netflix’s latest horror offering is something well suited to the era of streaming. It’s the perfect marriage of form and tone.
The Fear Street movie series is an adaptation of R.L. Stine’s teen horror book series of the same name, although none of the three movies–titled 1994, 1978 and 1666, for the year in which they take place–are direct adaptations. Rather, series director Leigh Janiak said she made the movies in the spirit of the books.
That spirit –fun and gory but also dark and nostalgic, a little more mature than Goosebumps, a little more freewheeling than adult horror–is hard not to vibe with, especially when it revels in remixing horror classics like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp and The Witch. Watching this feels like staying up late to read a horror novel by flashlight, long after your parents told you to go to bed.
The story uniting all three movies takes place in 1994 and centers on Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), fresh off a breakup. Deena is from Shadyside, nicknamed Shittyside, notorious for a series of brutal murders that has plagued the town since…1666. Sam recently moved to Sunnyvale, the proper side of the tracks. Her mom frowns upon Sam and Deena’s relationship, but hardly any of the kids do, which is the first tipoff that this series has a decidedly 2021 lens. It’s refreshing to see a teen story treat a gay couple plot just like any other romance. Their relationship is the heart and soul of this series, and it never feels forced.
When Sam, Deena and their friends accidentally uncover the ancient evil that’s been cursing Shadyside for centuries, it’s up to them to fight off every killer that’s ever haunted their town. It’s a fight that takes them to C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), who recounts her experience with that ancient evil in the second installment in the series, 1978. It all comes back around in 1666, the best of the trilogy, when Deena finally learns what happened all those years ago and now has the tools to fight back.
Part of the fun of watching is seeing how Fear Street mixes nostalgia with current-day horror tropes. In 1994, Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke carries on Drew Barrymore’s Scream legacy; in 1978, characters reference Stephen King’s early novels and perform a riff on Friday the 13th; in 1666, a clever casting gimmick puts our heroes in The Witch-era Puritanical America. There are some anachronisms, especially with the needle-drop heavy soundtrack, but this is not a series that cares about historical accuracy. This is all vibes, all the time.
That nostalgia only goes as far as aesthetics, though. By the time Deena and Co. find out the root of the curse, it’s clear this series has a lot in common with the most recent remake of Black Christmas. We see that the real reason for the curse and all the pain and suffering all of these characters have gone through is because of one man’s quest for power, prosperity and legacy. But, true to Fear Street tone, it treats that like a sinister Scooby-Doo episode. It’s fun horror that has a point of view, combined with a bunch of really gross kill scenes.
In addition to being a ton of fun, Fear Street is perfect for Netflix. The streamer doesn’t normally lean into the fact that it’s not beholden to a traditional movie or TV series model. They doled out Fear Street over the course of three weeks, one movie at a time, like a weekly episode of a TV series. That was mostly the plan from the beginning, back when the project was attached to 20th Century Fox, which intended to release the three movies across three months. Disney’s acquisition of the company put a stop to that. Netflix stepped in, and now horror fans have the instant gratification of watching all three new installments of a trilogy within a month, recreating that “staying up late to read a lot of books” feeling.
Hopefully, Netflix will experiment with different ways of releasing content more often. Janiak has said she wants to expand the Fear Street series into a greater R.L. Stine cinematic universe. Maybe we’ll get a new cinematic universe with movies every week.