There’s been a lot of debate, centered around awards qualification, as to whether a movie made for Netflix counts as a movie or a TV movie … and a lot less chatter about the even more interesting issue of whether a multi-part work that mimics the form of a TV series made for a streaming service actually is a TV series, a serial on the Republic chapterplay fashion, a serial on the BBC classic adaptation pattern (The Queen’s Gambit is close), an umpteen-hour movie, or (right answer) something we’ve not got a name for yet and, as a consequence, haven’t really got a handle on how to make work (too many streaming shows somehow manage no narrative momentum – and the platform must notice how many folk bail after episode two). And, whatever their advantages, none of the current streaming platforms are that keen on commissioning Edgar Reitz or the modern equivalent – even as they stretch a canvas that could be filled with a Heimat. Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street is a different beast, but also a new thing – and something only a streaming platform could consider as a mainstream prospect … three linked films (a trilogy) adapted from R.L. Stine but skewing older, gorier and swearier than Goosebumps, with a feature dropping once a week and a guarantee that the story will get finished (with, inevitably, a hook for further installments) rather than, as can happen with big screen projects, abandoned after a movie or two (where’s the conclusion to the Happy Death Day trilogy, eh?).
In terms of the current media landscape, there are a few obvious precedents – the mix of nostalgia and horror and contempo buzz of Stranger Things and various seasons of An American Horror Story are plainly in the mix, and this ‘90s-set opener tries for the look and feel of the Scream films, albeit without the genre-referentiality since this has to find time for 25-years-ago needle drops, sign of the times business (a pager, the burble of a dial-up modem, watching My So-Called Life) that – like Stranger Things – establishes this takes place in a weirdly apolitical version of its decade, defined by music and clothes and memorable pop culture rather than by who was President or big news headline events. Fair enough, maybe that was the ‘90s if you were a child then. More problematic is that this feels like a cut-and-paste slasher film which is too jittery and jokey to work up much in the way of suspense and horror.
The premise is solid – two adjacent communities have very different fortunes … the upscale Sunnyvale is crime-free and prosperous (and white), nearby Shadyside is multi-ethnic without anyone mentioning it, struggling economically, and has a history of slasher-movie-type massacres perpetrated by franchise-type fiends all the way back to 1666 when witch Sara Fier was hanged only to get revenge by possessing or inspiring a chain of killers through the ages. A group of Shadyside kids are pursued by a clutch of these undead psychos while hurrying through character beats – Deena (Kiana Madeira, whose IMDb listing includes a spoiler for Fear Street Part 3) is an edgy lesbian angry that her blonde cheerleader girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) has dumped her for a male Sunnyvaler asshole for the purposes of social advancement … her chubbier ‘Urkel’-type brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr) is in chatrooms and handily has all the backstory to spill, plus a crush on bad girl Kate (Julia Rehwald), who is at once Shadyside valedictorian and the school drug dealer … while Simon (Fred Hechinger) is the comedy relief tagalong, whose callousness sets an unlikeable tone the film never really gets past, even as it tries for a bit more depth and poignance when (late in the day) the body count extends to people we’re supposed to care about.
As a slasher film, it can’t settle on a locale – it keeps coming back to the Mall where the prologue killing (of Drew-in-Scream guest star Maya Hawke) took place, which slightly evokes Intruder (with 1980s horror-style use of an industrial bread-slicer) but there are chases around people’s homes, a hospital with two staff and one patient (surely, a Shadyside medical facility would be overrun?), and the streets (none of which seem to be called or even nicknamed Fear Street). A thing it does that would be tricky in a theatrical franchise-opener is including a trailer for next week’s instlalment (1978 – a summer camp slasher). I’m kind of hoping this gels when all three movies are out – I liked Janiak’s debut feature Honeymoon, and that proves she can handle character, nuance and creepiness – but the first impression this franchise gives is rather mixed.