I never thought I would get tired of the retro horror boom.
Back when Stranger Things season one first came out, I was all for it. Give me fun throwback eighties-nineties horror! The malls! The neon! The VHS tapes! The hair! The clothes! All of it! I love horror, and horror from the eighties and nineties (as chosen for me by my similarly horror-obsessed father, who’d watched them all when they first came out) was what I grew up on. For a long time, it was genuinely fun to see people pay homage to those tropes, to the daftness, to the micro-shorts and mega-hair. After horror spending so long on the outskirts of the mainstream, we were finally get a real love letter to the specific genre tropes of VHS video nasties everywhere we turned, and that had to be a good thing, right?
Fear Street Part One: 1994 is the first entry into what will be a three-part film series released over the course of this month, and in some ways, it feels like I might have hit my limit with how much of this endless throwbacking I can take.
Okay, to be fair, let’s be honest: the first of Leigh Janiak’s horror trilogy is about as good a horror throwback as they come. Maya Hawkes gets the Drew-Barrymore-in-Scream treatment in the first ten minutes. The central mystery is fun and pretty inventive, and the performances from the lead cast (especially the enormously fun and charming Benjamin Flores Junior) are uniformly solid. The writing has that distinctly arch, knowing attitude that pretty much all cinematic high school iterations have to their name these days, and even if it’s not organic, it is pretty fun. I appreciate the central love story built around a lesbian relationship, and the nods to class disparity in the small town where the story takes place. The monsters are neat enough, and the promise of unfurling more of this mystery as we go back further into the story (with the next two parts set before this one) is something I’m genuinely looking forward to. I am a whore for lore. and the thought of a movie series getting to engage in a deep-dive like this – which is usually only reserved for TV releases with a more compressed timeframe of distribution – is pretty neat to me.
But there’s something about Fear Street Part One that feels a little too manufactured for me. There’s a by-the-numbers feel to the way this looks, to the way it sounds, sometimes even to the way its shot, that goes beyond homage and into just genuinely uninteresting territory. I kept waiting for that zing, a pop that would help give it something fresh, but it never really comes, at least in this opening salvo. It’s enthusiastic enough, but something about the actual execution feels almost cynical; here’s Stranger Things, with a little dash of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a dab of Stephen King, and we’re done. That’s what audiences want these days, right? Slap a video store and an AOL chatroom in, and you’ve got the makings of something with enough nostalgia to save you from noticing the standards.
This isn’t a bad movie, by any stretch, but it’s one that feels a little too obvious for me. I’m really hoping that the next couple of parts, taking a step back from the overdone eighties and nineties timeslots we’ve been pummelled with lately, will help fix that.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Variety)