Friday 4 February 2022

Fear Street


I knew Simon. 

He was funny and brave. 

And I knew Kate. 

She was smart and kind and...


The first Fear Street (1994) took me right back to watching late Nineties/early 2000s slasher films – surrounded by friends, sweets and chips packets, we burned through all of them, with differing levels of tolerance for the violence, screaming in unison at the jump scares. It stands out as a period of time for me – it was never at the cinema, always in someone’s childhood bedroom or the family living room, always on video cassettes. Later, when we were old enough to be admitted to those kinds of films in a movie theatre, we would just end up watching much tamer fare, falling back on teen comedies. 

What stands out to me about those films that I’ve never gone back to – especially Scream, the classic of the genre – is that I can barely remember the victims. I can conjure up the forever final girl, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, surviving all that was thrown at her, I can see the faces of Matthew Lillard and Skeet Ulrich, but not any of the other friends who didn’t make it through the film. Drew Barrymore’s cameo remains memorable, of course – the most recognisable actress at the time, dead almost as soon as she appears – but otherwise, there’s a blank. Maybe it has something to do with not seeing myself on screen, not feeling represented – we were too young at the time, years away from these teenagers, but they were also uniformly straight in that particular 1990s way, not just in the most obvious way, but also culturally. 

What Leigh Janiak accomplishes in these three films feels almost like reclamation of the genre, and it’s written in the very concept of Fear Street. There’s the division between Shadyside, forever struggling with sudden outbursts of terrifying slasher violence, creating a socio-economic prison for kids who will never be able to leave, just as their parents could never leave, generations and generations back to the founding of the town in 1666, and Sunnyvale, which is reaping the rewards of generational wealth, thriving without crime. Shadyside is literally a place of darkness, and Sunnyside is a place of light, a rift that appears to be inescapable throughout history. The depression of Shadyside is inscribed in the characters – especially in Deena (a great Kiana Madeira), our heroine, whose tagline is “Welcome to the suck. Shit is doomed!”. Deena understands how Shadyside works, that nobody makes it out alive, that whatever darkness haunts the town goes beyond the regular murders – it’s generation poverty that is trapping her and her friends, in spite of their attempts to leave, to support their families with shitty jobs, to find meaning and joy in each other’s friendships. The film begins with an homage to Scream – Maya Hawke’s Heather, working at the local mall, doesn’t make it out of the latest killing spree alive, becoming a victim to her friend, a motive that is repeated throughout history, with people who appeared to be normal and loved suddenly becoming possessed, leaving havoc behind, the narrative of another Shadysider snapping ready to be printed immediately. 

The beating heart of the series – apart from the dark, evil heart underneath the town – is Deena’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who hasn’t just betrayed her by not wanting to be out, but more fundamentally by moving to Sunnyvale after her parents’ divorce. Deena’s resentment is deep and irrational to an extent, since Sam had no control over the move, but Deena sees Sam’s move to the sunny side as inauthentic – a false hope of a future outside of their doomed town, a switch to the enemy, the taunting, cruel children of the rich. Beyond the horrors of the ever-returning slashers, it is the cruelty of Sunnyvale that resonates more, the crimes of the privileged against the struggling, with adults either being absent entirely, ineffective, or downright evil themselves. 

Deena’s resentment explodes during a high school football game – Sunnydale vs Shadyside results in violence, Sam’s idiot new boyfriend chases the team bus in his car, Deena takes revenge, causing a car crash, that results in Sam getting serious injured, but also bleeding on the buried bones of famed urban legend witch Sarah Fier, putting her in the cross-hairs of all the monsters of the past who begin emerging, attracted by her blood. Deena capably assembles a scooby team out of her best friend Simon (Fred Hechinger), brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and best friend Kate (Julia Rehwald) to save Sam – and here’s where the true magic in Fear Street happens. Where Scream’s victims remain unremarkable, Leigh Janiak manages to make us love each and everyone one of them – all of them outsiders and weirdos, dealing with the economic struggles of living in Shadyside in their own way. Simon has been supporting his family by working in the local grocery store (he’s been the employee of the month for years). Josh is obsessed with local history, and helps solve what is happening to them with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the violence of Shadyside. Kate – president of all clubs, school valedictorian – has a side hustle as a drug dealer with which she hopes to one day escape to college. They are fiercely loyal to Deena and each other (Sam, maybe not quite as much, adopting some of Deena’s resentment, which soon melts once they rekindle their relationship gently), they are incredibly brave in the face of absolute, visceral terror, and two of them meet brutal ends that hit all the harder because they’re fully formed characters that we as an audience are rooting for. And in the end, Sam isn’t entirely saved, instead possessed by the same curse that has turned so many others into killers – and Deena has to learn more about the history of the place she hates so much to find a way to save her. 

Deena’s stubbornness and love are the bookends for the series – in 1978, we witness the sole survivor of a previous attack, played in the present time by Gillian Jacobs (I’d put her on a list of possible modern versions for Yellowjackets’ Van after this), and by Stranger Thing’s Sadie Sink back in the Nightwing (what a name!) summer camp in the Seventies. Ziggy is like Deena in many ways, hateful of Shadyside but more so of her sister, who has hopes for the future and has attempted to transform herself into someone new, leaving the other outsiders behind. Like in 1994, there is an insurmountable division between Shadyside and Sunnyvale, with the Sunnyvale campers cruelly teaming together to torture Ziggy and others – it’s our first sign that maybe the historical reading of Shadyside’s history is wrong, that this isn’t in fact the revenge of a witch that was killed, since the result of whatever happened appears to be that Sunnyvale forever profits from the poverty of Shadyside. Again, the characters are drawn with care, so that their death hits all the harder, and this time, it’s not just the victims – it’s also the first time that we get a clear sense of what it means to have people’s friends and loved ones turned into killers out of nowhere, without an explanation. Ziggy is saved by a young Will Goode (Brandon Spink), who will later become the local sheriff – a Sunnysider predestined for greatness even then, who appears to be carrying a heavy burden. But again, there are still pieces of the puzzle missing, and Fear Street 1666 finally travels all the way back to the beginnings. 

1994 stands out for me and could work as a stand-alone film – it would make sense that the setting was required because some of this wouldn’t work with the addition of more functional internet and mobile phones, plus it is always great to be able to use Portishead and Radiohead. But 1666 is what really surprised me – it doesn’t go the way of The VVitch, which presented a profoundly small community in the throes of religious zeal, far removed from contemporary understanding of reality. In Union (the settlement preceding Shadyside and Sunnyvale, undivided), the young people are not unlike the ones we see in 1978 and 1994 – looking for the joys available to them in the deprivation, meeting up under the full moon to drink and do drugs, to wring some kind of liveable life out of the horrors of a precarious historical time. And again, there’s love – Sarah Fier (played by both Kiana Madeira and Elizabeth Scopel) and Hannah Miller (Olivia Scott Welch, mirroring 1994) steal away for kisses, constantly aware of what their community would do to them if they knew. It is fitting that we see the same actors assuming the roles of their ancestors, since the curse appears to trap everyone within the confines of the doomed land, where nobody ever gets to truly leave unless it’s in a bodybag. The inevitable witch hunt begins when the pastor goes insane, gouging out the eyes of children and killing them, an event so gruesome that his flock immediately decides that there must be a darker force at play – and of course their eyes turn towards the stay youth, and specifically, Sarah Fier, who is too different to not become the focus of everyone’s ire. She is unmarried, not allowing her father to give her to the local widower Solomon Goode (Ashley Zukerman, playing Will’s forefather). 1666 undermines our expectation – the easy story that we’ve heard before, a witch who was killed dooming the community that murdered her to centuries of misery. Instead this becomes a story about male entitlement, Solomon Goode desiring a better life for himself so much that he makes a pact with the devil, creating the rift that will see his family in power and light forever, and Shadyside in the dark. Sarah sacrifices herself to preserve the life of her beloved (her friends gently give her a good burial, horrified by what their parents have done to her), but she also curses Solomon, promising that she will eventually revenge what he has done – and this is what Deena does, once she has solved the mystery, aided by Josh, Ziggy and Martin, a man who Will has repeatedly framed for no apparent reason except cruelty. In the end, the true villain of the story – a villain throughout all the branches of the Goode’s family tree – is a man so keen on power and riches that he would sacrifice generation after generation of young Shadysiders. It is only when Deena succeeds in turning his monsters against them that the curse is lifted and Sam is saved – their love prevailing against all odds, a queer triumph. They emerge in the Goode’s mansion, with all of their riches openly displayed, into the beautiful streets of a town that has never been affected by the darkness of its neighbour – but now the fates have turned. 

Fear Street: 1994, directed by Leigh Janiak, starring Kiana Madeira, Julia Rehwald, Olivia Scott Welch, Fred Hechinger, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman. 

Fear Street: 1978, directed by Leigh Janiak, starring Sadie Sink, Ted Sutherland, Emily Rudd, Chiara Aurelia. 

Fear Street: 1666, directed by Leigh Janiak, starring Kiana Madeira, Elizabeth Scopel, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, Olivia Scott Welch, Ashley Zukerman. 

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