So I saw Freaky in the cinema a couple of days ago thinking it was going to be a smart and fresh take on psycho killer films, something that took the cinematic conventions and the audience expectations that went with them and played with these to push things forward in an entertaining and thrilling way. This isn’t what I got.
Little did I know that the very thing I had wanted was waiting for me back home on Netflix. There is more in first eight minutes of Fear Street Part 1: 1994 than in the whole running time of Freaky. I feel like I’m being harsh on the Kathryn Newton slash Vince Vaughn slasher which was fun enough but it really did fail to add anything new to the crowded genre it explicitly purported to have a knowing approach to. It absolutely did not deliver on what it promised. This film does this in spades though and it does it all in the opening scenes before the titles have even rolled.
So we start with Maya Hawke working in a mall, which is already promising because as all Stranger Things fans know Maya Hawke has done her best work working in a mall. It’s late and she’s going about her regular business then the phone rings. The location might be different but with the recognisable young female actor, even one from Hollywood lineage, getting stalked at night, in the 90s, we are in definite Scream territory here and the film really, really (really) leans into this. It takes what is familiar here though and uses it and your knowledge of it to surprise you. It so looks like it is going one way and then it doesn’t (then it does, then it doesn’t). I know we’ve waited a long time for the latest Bond film but here is a movie that takes what that long running series is famous for, the precredits sequence, and takes the super spy to school.
Interestingly Fear Street: Part 1, as is so clearly suggested by the title, is also part of a series but rather than keeping us hanging on seemingly indefinitely for the next one (yes James, I’m looking at you again), it is out on Friday and the third the week after that. This is even playing with what’s expected with its scheduling. (Although since these are on Netflix doesn’t this just kind of make it a TV show? Still, it’s a great way of capitalising on what you can do with a streaming platform over cinemas.) Of course, the problem with a great opening is that you need to make sure that you have something to follow it with, especially when you’ve got two sequels waiting in the wings. I’ll let you know how the other movies go but Part 1: 1994 builds on its opening minutes brilliantly.
Beyond the smart intertextuality, which does continue throughout albeit with greater subtlety, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 has two main things; character and suspense. It is never very scary but it is thrilling and its antagonists are used to great effect. Like all the best horror films though it succeeds by making you care for its heroes and the group at the heart of this misadventure are all fleshed out prior to all the flesh wounds, despite them being fairly standard tropes. Even the exposition guy; the one who has been handily studying the history of murder in the town, is believable. There is more to the story too; being chased by blade wielding killers is not even the most important thing going on in these kids’ lives right now.
The film, as with its pending successors, is based on the writing of children’s writer R.L. Stine (he of the Goosebumps books) but while you can see this in the narrative structure, this is not a kids film. Adapting this for an older audience is akin to turning The Famous Five into Raiders of the Lost Ark or Judy Blume into Mills & Boon but it totally works. In its later moments you do wonder if the sense of peril has gone but then the movie answers this suddenly and surprisingly brutally.
The subtitles of the remaining two films; 1978 and 1666 make it sound like they will be prequels but it seems that they will playing with ideas around this too. (1666 is significant in Britain as the year that the great plague subsided which is pertinent right now, but it also brought the Great Fire of London.) Whatever they do though I’ll be there next Friday, I’m definitely going to revisit this street.
The Ripley Factor:
The film’s lead is female and Kiana Madeira is great in the role. There’s also a nice moment when you discover something about her ex near the start that adds to the feminism of it all and follows through as one of the best elements of the movie.
Having a girl at the centre of a slasher pic is not unusual though, even though this lady is more level headed than many of her predecessors. What is notable here is that there is a woman behind the camera too with director Leigh Janiak. Even following Jennifer Kent, Julia Ducournau and back in the day Mary Lambert, there are even fewer women calling the shots on these types of films than there are in Hollywood generally. These three movies, coming in very quick order, are no doubt going to be a great calling card for Janiak and it is this that I hope cuts the deepest.