DownStream – Fear Street

Experimentation is rare in mainstream film these days, as most studios are content to churn out the same franchise-based IP they’ve done for years in hopes of a quick payday. Even when they do take calculated risks, most of their avenues are derivative at best, aiming for commercial tie-ins and corporate synergy when it makes the least amount of sense. And this is true not just for new films, but modern classics as well. For example, my Roku advertised the movie Cast Away on the pause screen yesterday, with a sponsorship from the travel website Hotwire. So, a business whose sole purpose for existing is to facilitate vacations puts its name on a movie where a guy survives a plane crash and gets stranded on an uncharted island for four years? Way to think that one through.

All of this is to say that whenever a production company, studio, or distribution house actually does decide to try something new, I’m honor-bound to at least give it a look, because there’s not nearly enough of it going on at the moment. As such, I was wholly intrigued by the idea of the Fear Street trilogy. An adaptation of R.L. Stine’s much more graphic works that came out before the Goosebumps series, the project began under the auspices of 20th Century Fox before Disney bought it out, with the plan being to film all three movies back-to-back and release them one month apart in the summer of 2020.

The COVID pandemic obviously put the kibosh on that last part, but sometimes happy accidents come out of bad situations. After the production company, Chernin Entertainment (a subsidiary of NewsCorp that stuck around after the House of Mouse took over most of Fox’s assets), allowed their distribution deal to expire, they struck up a new one with Netflix, accelerating the trilogy into three weekly installments during the month of July.

Think about that for a second. Even if the whole project turned into a bust, you have two very ballsy decisions at play here. First, the studio, along with director Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), had enough confidence in the material they had developed to do the almost unprecedented and film an entire trilogy in one go. Peter Jackson obviously is the pioneer of this concept with the Lord of the Rings films (and The Hobbit to a much lesser extent), but apart from such a high concept, big budget undertaking, this really hadn’t been done in the modern age. And unlike LotR, the plan was to release all three films over one season, rather than the one per year model for Jackson.

Pushing things even closer together for Netflix introduced a third bit of interest, as putting out one film each week allowed for two potential ways for audiences to go about watching this project. You could either watch them as they premiered, with the subsequent sequels being fresh in your mind as you went in (honestly rendering the recap segments in Parts Two and Three redundant), or you could binge the whole series in one go once they were all available.

Now that’s something new and exciting. Whichever path you chose, you were essentially doing something that had never really been done before with movies. Oh sure, fans have marathoned their favorite franchises for years once they were available for home viewing, but those are for already established properties and are ultimately self-curated, as people can go in whatever order they like or omit some entries entirely because they know the material. That’s never really been done with new movies, where the audience ostensibly doesn’t know what’s coming. You’re taking a legitimate chance by diving in and committing yourself for an entire trilogy sight unseen. And while you can obviously bail out at any point if it’s not working for you, to even create the distribution framework for a new movie binge is extremely outside the box.

The movie industry is in a unique position right now, with streaming services gobbling up content left and right for quick distribution, but at the same time they have to remain cautious, as the best stuff could ultimately be deemed ineligible for Awards Season honors if the studios attempt to abandon the theatre system entirely. The COVID rule changes will eventually go away, so Fear Street becomes a moment to test the waters for the future of the distribution model. If left in the wrong hands (meaning corporate and not creative), this novel way of doing things will become a stale, joyless slog very quickly. But for now, it’s new and shiny, and thankfully, it could only have worked if the product was good enough to justify the attempt.

I chose to binge the trilogy last week, rather than watch one film then wait a week for the next installment. I really wanted to give this an honest go and try to process and experience the entire miniature saga in one fell swoop, and in doing so, I admit I had a lot of fun. Are the films going to become all-time classics of the genre? Probably not. But that said, there’s a lot of quality on display here, and I felt it better to tackle the review for the trilogy as a whole rather than truly compartmentalizing the three installments in individual posts. So, with all that said, welcome to this special edition of “DownStream!” Let’s get down to the business of butchering!

Part One: 1994

The first way in which Janiak makes her gory opus an essential piece of viewing is in the timeline of the trilogy. The first part takes place in 1994, while Part Two goes back to 1978, and Part Three all the way back to 1666. By that very conceit, it’s impossible to jump ahead to a different movie, because with each successive film you’re jumping backwards in time. Yes, there are recap segments, but they’re more of an extended montage than a full relaying of all necessary information. So not only does this framing hammer home the interconnected nature of the films, it also renders this first one as the closest to a pure stand-alone.

The film opens on an unassuming night at the Shadyside Mall, and right away we have some beautiful scenery and fun homages. This trilogy is filled with hat-tips to the great horror and slasher films of the last 50 years, and fans will pick up on the vast majority of them, including having a mall as a centerpiece, a la Dawn of the Dead among others. A bookstore employee (which you can take as a reference to Stine himself or Stephen King, or both) named Heather (not Langenkamp) played by Maya Hawke is closing up shop when the lights go out and she’s chased through the corridors by a crazed, knife-wielding maniac in a skeleton mask. As she’s eventually caught and brutally dispatched, she’s able to remove the killer’s mask and reveal him to be her friend, Ryan (David W. Thompson of Gotham and Green Room), who had been perfectly normal a few minutes before. Ryan is then shot and killed by Sheriff Nick Goode (Ashley Zukerman), but not before it’s shown that several people at the mall have met a gruesome end.

This opening sequence is an absolutely perfect tone-setter. The whole thing plays like a send-up of Scream, which was itself a send-up of the conventions of the genre. Just like Ghostface stalking and taunting Drew Barrymore, Heather finds creative ways to defend herself and comes close to making an escape before her inevitable gutting, and just like that famed opening, Janiak dispenses with arguably the most famous actors in the film in the first 10 minutes. This tells you in no uncertain terms that we’re going to have a high body count, we’re not skimping on the viscera, and ultimately, this is going to be a high-octane ride. It at once assures the audience that we’re in for some fun, and challenges itself to maintain that level of excitement over the course of not just this film, but two more after it.

Once the ball starts rolling, we’re introduced to the rest of the film’s main cast, most of whom are relative unknowns (half of them don’t even have Wikipedia pages). Kiana Madeira stars as Deena, a high school student getting over a breakup and basically acting as a surrogate parent to her younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores, Jr. aka Lil’ P-Nut in the rap world), who obsesses over the town’s history and chats on anonymous message boards about the Shadyside Curse. Allegedly, a witch named Sarah Fier was executed back in colonial days and cast a spell on the town of Unity, splitting it into the affluent Sunnyvale, where nothing ever goes wrong, and the doomed Shadyside, dubbed “Murder Capital of America” due to the litany of mass killings that happen every few years, all of which fit the profile of a lone assailant suddenly going mad and taking out several people before they themselves die, either by law enforcement or their own hand. Rounding out the cast are cheerleader Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger of Eighth Grade and News of the World), friends of Deena who sell drugs to their fellow students, and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who recently moved from Shadyside to Sunnyvale on her mother’s wishes.

The two towns maintain a bitter rivalry, evidenced by a candlelight vigil at the next football game after the murders, where the Sunnyvale players openly mock their counterparts, resulting in fighting and dangerous pranks on the roadsides. In the scuffle, Sam sees a vision of the witch, which obviously spooks her, but things get even more dangerous when supposed copycat curse killers start hunting the group.

As such, this is set up as a survival horror movie, reminiscent of everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street to I Know What You Did Last Summer and a whole host of others. It’s set in the suburbs. Most of the cast is in school. There’s an existential threat, it might be supernatural, but there’s enough lore set up through exposition to give the cast a chance to outwit, outplay, and outlast the killers. Josh’s entire character is basically Ben from It. But rather than going full Scream and just subverting the tropes, the film establishes its own rules as it goes, even introducing some social angles not often seen in these types of films, and then commits to them, all while delivering some absolutely righteous kills. I won’t spoil any of them, but suffice to say one of them might be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

As a stand-alone film, the story is fairly self-contained, save for a cliffhanger tease for the sequel, but if the trilogy experiment had failed, or if the studio had decided to just do the series as normal, the out point isn’t all that different from what you’d normally see. The production values are quite high, particularly when you consider how much of the budget likely went to licensing music. Honestly, the soundtrack is one of the few true flaws of the film, as it’s almost on a Cruella level of needle drops, and at least a third, if not half, of the songs used were released after 1994. Apart from a really clever linking of “The Man Who Sold the World” with the second film, most of the music choices basically boiled down to, “Oh yeah, that was 90s,” without taking the time to make sure the track made sense for the plot or the timeline.

The only other major criticism I had was that, like the films it homages and satirizes, there are a lot of over-the-top obvious bits. The fact that the sheriff’s name is Goode, the fact that the witch’s name is Fier (pronounced like “fear”), who lives and dies, it’s all very basic. Along that same line, there’s an unreasonable amount of irrational sacrifice among the core cast, who prior to the film’s events would mostly have no reason to ever do so much as take the blame for a broken glass to let their friend escape parental blowback, much less be willing to die horribly for one another. Still, the execution of the main story beats and the kills are enough to outweigh the shortcomings.

Part Two: 1978

We go from the solvable survival horror of Part One to the straight-up slasher gore fest of Part Two. After some expositional setup by “C. Berman,” (Gillian Jacobs, now officially the most famous person in the trilogy) who had survived the previous massacre, we flash back to 1978 and Camp Nightwing (because Camp Batgirl was busy), to see said massacre play out. Now that we know how the murders tend to unfold, the film dispenses with any real mystery and gets right down to business, taking the already-teased-in-the-first-film Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye) and unleashing him upon the campers, with just a hint of additional information as to how this curse all works.

Sadie Sink of Stranger Things (there’s a fair few of that show’s cast across these films) plays Ziggy, a troublemaker and black sheep to her more prim and proper older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd, no relation to Paul). Ziggy’s a camper, while Cindy is a Counselor-in-Training, and Nightwing itself is a joint camp of Sunnyvale and Shadyside, built on the land where Sarah Fier was tried and executed, her “Hanging Tree” a notable landmark on the grounds.

As the camp prepares for its annual “Color War” between the two sides (Shadyside has notably never won), the social dynamics are on full display. Sunnyvale campers constantly bully and torment Ziggy, going as far as to burn her arm when they accuse her of stealing (an accusation that is never proven, mind you, all we ever truly learn is that Ziggy had a couple bucks in her pocket). Essentially, the behavior of the Sunnyvale kids gives the Shadysiders every reason to go on a murderous rampage, but it is Counselor Tommy (Cindy’s boyfriend), who has been “chosen,” according to ominous warnings (and an attempted murder) by the camp nurse (Jordana Spiro). The nurse’s daughter was the killer in a previous alleged Sarah Fier “possession,” and she’s spent her time at the camp trying to discover Fier’s legendary severed hand and return it to her buried body in hopes of ending the curse.

This is a much more straightforward quasi-parody than the previous film, hitting most of the story beats of the Friday the 13th series, particularly 1981’s Friday the 13th, Part 2, appropriately enough. Like that classic slasher sequel, the camp is operational (in Friday 2 everything’s set up, they’re just waiting for campers to arrive in a week or so at this new location across from Crystal Lake), there’s a lot of fucking (including Ryan Simpkins and Sam Brooks as stoner counselor couple Alice and Arnie, respectively), and there’s one semi nice guy among the ruling set in the form of Ted Sutherland playing a young Nick Goode.

But the two most important parallels are also the most obvious. One, there will be, at most, two survivors from the main cast, and we already know that it will be Nick and whichever one of the sisters “C. Berman” is, as she explains in the opening that her sister dies. As such, everyone you see is basically fodder, though in keeping with the curse, the Sunnyvale kids get off scot free. This isn’t so much a spoiler as it is a simple admission of how the formula works. Second, like Jason’s original form, Tommy does his killings with a burlap sack over his head. Yeah, if you’ve never actually seen the series, Jason’s mother Pamela is the killer in the first film (also revealed in Scream; man Janiak owes a LOT to Wes Craven in this trilogy), and Jason wears a sack in the second. He doesn’t get his famous hockey mask until the third movie.

Despite all this, the movie is still a success, again because of the execution. The cliché moments are tired and predictable, but the absolute glee with which the cast engages in it is palpable. Part of the fun of having so many no-to-new-name actors is that each of them seems to realize that this could be their “Scream Queen” moment that launches them into stardom. Remember, a lot of great actors got their start in pulpy slasher films. Jamie Lee Curtis made her film debut in Halloween, Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Kevin Bacon got a gorgeously gruesome death scene in the original Friday the 13th, which was his fourth movie, but only his second major role. The whole cast throws themselves into these scenes with no reservation, whether they’re about to give head or lose theirs, and it’s weirdly refreshing.

Of the three films, this is the most conventional, and the least essential, as it’s really just a gory setup for the conclusion. The crucial plot details arguably could have been covered through dialogue or a few flashback scenes in the first and last entries. In fact, despite this being the second movie, it was the third to be filmed, and there are a couple of moments that feel like afterthoughts, particularly the fate of one character that’s left unresolved. Still, it’s a lovely gratuitous splatterfest that doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. Also, unlike the first movie, all the needle drops are accurate to the era.

Part Three: 1666

After survival and pure slasher glory, we resolve the trilogy with an homage to what is arguably the most prevalent of modern horror films, the religious movie. It was inevitable, what with the legend of a witch and all, so of course we go back to the colonial township of Unity and frame the proceedings around the story of Sarah Fier and how the curse actually began, so it can ultimately be stopped in 1994. A heaping helping of demons, scripture, Puritanism, and candles is our thematic reward for getting to this point. Normally I’d be pissed, because this is a subgenre that just simply doesn’t work for me (as I’ve noted before), but here the conceit not only succeeds, it also sets up a very satisfying climax to the whole trilogy.

Kiana Madeira is back, both as Deena Johnson, and as Sarah Fier herself, witnessing the events that led to her death (and partial dismemberment) from her point of view. In fact, in a rather inspired choice, the main players from both of the previous movies appear in 1666 playing some analog to their original characters. Olivia Scott Welch plays the pastor’s daughter, Hannah Miller. Emily Rudd and Sadie Sink are back as sisters Abigail and Constance. Benjamin Flores plays Sarah’s brother Henry, who tends a pig farm with her. Jordana Spiro is a mysterious widow living in the woods who dabbles in the occult. And most importantly, Ashley Zukerman plays his own forebear, Solomon Goode, to whom Sarah is betrothed.

The Unity youths engage in some frivolity by light of the full moon, including some familiarities of the flesh that mirror the social dynamics of the first two movies. When blight strikes the town, Mad Thomas (Slye, looking like Robert Pattinson circa Twilight) begins riling up the citizens to hunt for witches, the focus of which eventually lands on Sarah. It is through this fairly bloodless attempt to escape that the truth about her is finally revealed, leading to a predictable, but still very fun, conclusion. I’ll admit that I wasn’t too keen on the catalyst for these twists, mostly because they mirror the first movie so much that it almost feels like shoehorned social justice for the sake of pretending to have a “message” or “moral” to all of this. But honestly, it’s a minor concern, and while I don’t particularly care for it, I fully admit that it fits in with what the movies have been establishing throughout, and that logical consistency is more what matters.

***

And again, the myriad references are just so well done. The camera work is superb. The use of neon lighting is really top notch. There’s a moment where Sheriff Goode turns his head at such an angle that in the light he looks a dead ringer for Bruce Campbell’s Ash in Evil Dead 2. You can tell that Janiak wanted to not only make this entertaining, but that she cared enough about the genre and its fans as a whole to make sure she got it right in all the ways that matter without it devolving into unadulterated fan service and pandering. This is the difference between doing something clever through knowledge (there’s a bit of genius to thwart killers late in the film that had me laughing purely at its brilliance) and just doing a box-check parody like the Scary Movie franchise (and even then, it had its moments).

On the whole, there’s really only one true disappointment in the entire trilogy for me. On several occasions we get quick-cut flashbacks to all the Shadyside murders, and in each of the movies, some of the killers come back in one form or another. In each one we see this little person who wears a porcelain mask, like he’s a giant doll come to life to kill people. It’s what I would think of if the Annabelle and The Boy movies weren’t pointless and stupid. He’s such a diabolical little imp that I wanted to see truly go apeshit on people, but he never gets to. You get some looks in the flashbacks, but apart from that he’s a creeping menace, nothing more. I’d have loved a full movie devoted to his killing spree, just because it would probably be equal parts hilarious and unsettling. Oh well, maybe if they do another binge trilogy.

Grades:
Part One: 1994 – B+
Part Two: 1978 – B-
Part Three: 1666 – A-
Trilogy Average – B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What did you think of this series? Would you binge watch new movies on a regular basis if given the opportunity? If you were given a death scene in a horror movie, how would you want to go out? Let me know!

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