‘Fear Street’ Trilogy Review: Carnage and Close Calls

Like fresh entrails sewn into an old skeleton, the “Fear Street” trilogy is a new creature. Released on Netflix on consecutive Fridays, the three movies that make up the event straddle the line between weekly television and cinematic franchise. This Grand Guignol was an ambitious experiment for the streamer, and it mostly succeeds: “Fear Street,” an engaging and scrappy mini-franchise, plays like “Scream” meets “Stranger Things” built on a supernatural premise sturdy enough to sustain interest and suspense over nearly six hours.

Based on books by R.L. Stine, the “Fear Street” movies take place in side-by-side suburbs. Shadyside is drab and dejected, full of cynical kids who work hard and play harder. Nearby, a golden glow falls over the sublime Sunnyvale, Shadyside’s richer, snootier neighbor. General ill will divides the towns. But there’s a darker pattern at play. Every few decades, Shadyside is the site of a mass murder, and each time, the killer is an apparently stable resident who just seems to snap.

“Part One: 1994” opens on one such slaughter. In a lurid mall after-hours, we meet our first victim in Heather (Maya Hawke), who makes an impression although she doesn’t survive long. The story pivots to follow the trilogy’s hero, Deena (Kiana Madeira, with a bite), a cynical high schooler going through a painful breakup with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). Bitter, but with lingering tender feelings, Deena soon discovers that a drove of zombies is after her ex. And when efforts to involve the Sunnyside police — including the snidely named Sheriff Goode (Ashley Zukerman) — prove futile, Deena vows to protect Sam herself. Her nerdy little brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and some friends, Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), tag along to run interference.

The “Fear Street” universe’s rules of zombie conduct are not especially consistent. Sometimes a mere trace of blood is enough to allow the menaces to sniff out their prey and pounce. In other scenes, they take ages to track down their teenage targets — long enough, say, for a pair of exes to make up and make out. More methodical are the forces behind the zombies’ reanimation. Deena discovers that the undead killers are Shadyside’s deceased mass murderers. And then there’s the 17th-century witch, Sarah Fier, who possesses their corpses and orders them to strike from beyond the grave. Why Sarah is holding a centuries-long grudge against Shadyside is one of the mysteries powering Deena’s journey.

Leigh Janiak, who directed the trilogy and co-wrote the three screenplays, has deftly adapted Stine’s stories for the screen. Using an abundance of playful genre tropes, Janiak gives the movies a stylized energy. Motifs accompany overt references to classic horror movies, as when Simon cites a survival strategy he learned from “Poltergeist.” His borrowed idea turns out to be a bust, inspiring Deena to proclaim that their emergency “is not like the movies.”

The line nods to the audience, but, in a way, Deena’s right. “Fear Street” feels different. The trilogy eschews the doom-and-gloom sobriety of recent horror successes like “Bird Box” and “A Quiet Place,” or the nihilism of “The Purge” franchise. Shadyside and Sunnyvale represent opposite poles, but “Fear Street” isn’t an allegory about suburban privilege dressed up in blood and guts. More so, it’s a motley of gore and nostalgia as told through an endearing cast of teenage rebels.

These strengths are best displayed in “Part Two: 1978,” the strongest of the trilogy. While “Part One” drips with ’90s artifacts, including grunge outfits and Pixies mixtapes, “Part Two” takes a luscious trip back in time to a summer at Camp Nightwing. Campers donning short shorts crowd into cabin bunks while counselors just a few years older smoke pot and hook up to a soundtrack of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”

This part of the story centers on two sisters spending a summer at Nightwing: Ziggy (Sadie Sink), a sneering misfit camper, and the elder Cindy (Emily Rudd), a priggish, type-A counselor. Think “Wet Hot American Summer” infused with the macabre. The place gets especially gruesome once the sun sets and a killer — again, a Shadysider accursed — turns color war into a red rampage. Carnage and a series of close calls follow, but the change in scenery ensures that “Part Two” never feels like a clone of “Part One.” The actors help: The combined talents of Sink, Rudd and Ryan Simpkins, as Cindy’s co-counselor Alice, raise the tension by a few notches.

The final installment, “Part Three: 1666” backpedals to an even earlier time, bringing us to the village of Sarah Fier. In a stage drama surprise, many of the actors from “Part One” and “Two” return in new, 17th-century roles, sporting colonial rags and period speech that nobody quite pulls off. Here, there is less to propel the action, and lacking in pop artifacts, lingo or fashion trends, Janiak struggles to recreate the fizzy and fun tone she achieved in the earlier movies. No matter. There are wicked mysteries to be solved, and by “Part Three,” you feel safe following these survivors wherever they go.

Fear Street Part One: 1994
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

Fear Street Part Two: 1978
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

Fear Street Part Three: 1666
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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