By ALEX PAGLIUCA
Anyone over forty remembers the return of the Volkswagen Beetle. For those who might be too young to have experienced this period of 1960s nostalgia, the marketing campaign was replete with hippie flower power imagery, references to Woodstock, and all the fixings. Those new Beetles were everywhere for a few years. Nostalgia sells. It’s the foremost reason behind the majority of remakes and the never-ending stream of retro-styled releases. They range from skillfully paying loving homage to the horror films of the past to being cheap, unimaginative nihilistic manipulations of audience affections for experiences with horror in their youth. The relationship between audiences’ love for the films of their youth and the drive to profit off of it ensures nostalgia will continue to sell. In turn, this means each generation’s childhood or adolescent favorites are going to get the nostalgic resurgence treatment at some point.
This doesn’t mean some things can’t and shouldn’t change though. In the same way the Volkswagen Beetle was brought back with modern technology, the best nostalgia-focused horror films pay homage to films and tropes horror fans love while bringing them firmly into the present. Where film and any narrative arts are concerned, the attitudes and ideas being put into these stories are as subject to evolution as the technology in cameras, special effects, sound, projection, and so on. Those ideas at the center of a film using nostalgia are what determines the difference between the best variety of homage and cheap, empty knockoffs. The FEAR STREET trilogy is a well-crafted, loving homage to the slashers of eras gone by, but also brings them firmly into a cinematic world more fitting today’s audiences. It gives audiences who’ve grown up with the slashers everything they love while giving a new generation the chance to fall in love with the archetypal elements by dropping the unnecessary baggage those films carried.
The callbacks and nods in the FEAR STREET trilogy are great and well thought out. The opening of FEAR STREET 1994 is a clear homage to Scream. The skull mask costume Ryan Torres is wearing, using Maya Hawke’s celebrity in the same way Scream used Drew Barrymore’s, and the way her death is filmed, down to the use of slow motion, are all clearly nods to Scream. The score is also remarkably similar because it is co-written by Marco Beltrami, who also did the scores for the first four Scream films. The tone of the script and dialog calls back to Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend and the many teen slashers of the 90’s. Of course, there are the needle drops to recall the 90’s more generally, which have been covered and commented on abundantly. The opening credits have a quality not dissimilar to those of Se7en, which was released in 1995. The film itself has influenced hundreds of horror films and police procedurals since, and the opening credit sequence alone has been imitated to the point of becoming its own trope.
FEAR STREET 1978 is paying homage to a handful summer camp horrors of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The axe wielding killer, Tommy Slater, manages to invoke both sack wearing Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th Part 2 (back in the days when Jason would run) and the silhouette of Cropsy from The Burning, a slightly lesser known summer camp slasher released in 1981. The early part of the film showing the camp, from the archery range to the swim dock on the lake, feels pulled right out of Camp Crystal Lake. It also invokes The Goonies to a certain degree, with its treasure map, and underground tunnel adventures. Again we get the choices of music which set the film firmly in the 1970’s, helping to call up the kind of pop culture conception of what the 70’s were like.
FEAR STREET 1666 looks to be paying homage to The Witch and The Crucible most prominently in the section of the film taking place in 1666, before returning to the 90’s aesthetic from FEAR STREET 1994. All of the story taking place in 1666 is desaturated, feeling restrained and subdued, much like the visual aesthetic of The Witch, and in contrast to the bright daylight, colorful clothing and set design of 1978, and the neon soaked visual style of 1994. It’s not just the direct references to horror which call back to horror of the past either. Class conflict was regular narrative feature of teen horror films and teen comedies in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. It was often a significant part of the “underdog” or “outsider” narrative.
The trilogy proclaims itself made by and for horror fans within the opening minutes, and then it manages to deliver on the promise inherent to this declaration. At even a surface reading, it’s an achievement. Bringing three films to the screen, all of them succeeding to do what so many other films try and fail to do, in serving fans something which meets, subverts and updates expectations is exciting. The FEAR STREET trilogy is worth recognizing for this alone.
What might be most important about the FEAR STREET trilogy though, is what it leaves behind. It’s become fairly common now to see adult horror fans post on social media about sitting down to show a film they love to their own kids or someone else’s and finding it an exercise in cringe inducement and uncomfortable conversations about how attitudes have changed on any number of topics. There are few of the films from these past eras which haven’t aged like cheap cheese in many ways.
Implicit homophobia and blatant homophobic slurs are pretty rampant in teen films of every genre going into the early 2000’s and horror is no exception. There are enough books written about sexism and misogyny in horror, especially the slasher genre, to fill a library. Arguments about the Final Girl being a figure of female empowerment can have a basis in truth, and the same films can still evince sexist and misogynist perspectives. It’s not always one or the other. It’s often both. A lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation, as well as the racist and xenophobic perspectives behind a lot of what representation exists, has been an issue for as long as horror has existed. Obviously, horror isn’t immune to the problems which plague the society producing it, and at the same time, the transgressive and confrontational aspects of horror, often making it the target of the same social movements and communities dedicated to preserving these problems, also make it an exceptional genre to address them. It’s also part of the history of the genre to do so. FEAR STREET is excellent evidence of horror bringing the best of the past into a story which points the way to a better future, by leaving behind what wasn’t necessary in the first place.
Class conflict, homophobia, sexism and racism are all working parts of the story in FEAR STREET. They help make it thematically rich, while still being the bloody fun horror fans love. The story and characters are three dimensional and give viewers more to hold onto, in part by not boiling the characters down in a way which makes any specific characteristic the only part of their identities. Deena and Sam, the two characters at the center of the story are lesbians. They deal with the kind of problems teen lesbians would have dealt with in the 1990’s. They’re also dealing with the complex issues of class and sexism and growing up in those conditions. A number of the characters are dealing with conflicts related to more than one easily identified issue. For both Deena and Sam, as we spend the most time with them, it’s clear these issues intertwine in complicated ways, and the reactions they have as individuals give their characters a depth protagonists in teen horror films don’t often get.
In 1994, when Sam (played by Olivia Scott Welch) is initially introduced, the trouble in her relationship with Deena (played by Kiana Madiera) isn’t singularly dealing with the homophobia lesbians faced in the 1990’s or the class issues of having spent their lives in Shadyside. It’s a complicated mixture of both. This is also part of the genius of FEAR STREET. The struggle for authenticity, the desire to be or fear of being oneself isn’t new to teen horror. It’s been a feature for a long time. The Lost Boys is an easy example. Michael (played by Jason Patric) is struggling with this exact thing, which is part of how he ends up mixed up with David (played by Keifer Sutherland) and the pack of vampires. These are themes being part of the horror tradition, give FEAR STREET the space to prove the genre and its themes aren’t being stretched by showing the realities faced by LGBTQ people where homophobia is concerned. It’s a clear example of removing the barriers to presenting realistic LGBTQ characters. There’s nothing preachy about the FEAR STREET trilogy. These are just organic parts of the story, because of who the characters are. The FEAR STREET films are still supernatural slasher films, no more or less than supernatural slasher films of the past. If anything, removing those barriers to be able to include a story of a lesbian couple has helped make it a richer story, and more importantly, it gives new generations who are showing very different attitudes about gender and sexuality a wider door to walk through in becoming part of the horror community.
Considering how many LGBTQ young people there are today, it is nothing but good for the future of horror for them to be able to see themselves in the stories being told. It would have been good for horror from the beginning, but because of homophobic attitudes of the straight public, queer audiences had to accept stories and characters as “queer coded” instead of having access to characters who were openly queer. Deena and Sam in 1994, as well as Sara and Hannah in 1666, aren’t any less easy to identify with because they are lesbians. Anyone who has been a teenager in love and/or struggled with class issues or family issues, can identify with how these characters feel. Who has waded through their teenage years and into adulthood without struggling with issues of identity? Queer people have been seeing themselves in stories about straight characters for the hundred plus years film has existed. Straight people are just as capable of the seeing themselves in queer characters, given the opportunity. The FEAR STREET trilogy is a strongly crafted invitation to do so.
Walter, who plays a very small role in 1994, before playing a much more substantial role in the second half of 1666 when the story returns to Deena and Sam in the year 1994, is as much a Shadysider, dealing with the issues of class, as Deena, Sam, Kate and Simon. It’s Walter who toward the end of 1994 yells, “Sheriff Goode? Seems more like Sheriff Evil!” which of course comes back in the third film. Goode has apparently framed Walter for spraying graffiti on the walls of the mall where 1994 opens. It’s a pretty simple, and still ingenious way, to use the supernatural aspects of the story as a metaphor for systemic racism in criminal punishment in the real world. Walter is dedicated to his job, as we come to find out in the second part of the third film, but he’s Black and from Shadyside, so it’s easy for Goode to frame him for painting graffiti on the mall where he works. Resulting from how Goode has treated Walter, when Deena, adult Ziggy and Josh pull up, saying “We need your help to kill Sheriff Goode,” Walter’s only response is, “Gimme a second to get my coat.” He doesn’t skip a beat. Walter isn’t a lesbian, he isn’t experiencing homophobia. He hasn’t had a bunch of supernatural serial killers chasing him around. He is a Shadysider though, and he knows they share at least one antagonist in their lives, Nick Goode, and Walter doesn’t even know the extent of Goode’s evil yet.
The truly masterful thing about FEAR STREET is its use of genre tropes as a way to pull all of these disparate threads together into a narrative about historical disinformation. It begins as a story about a vengeful witch, something common to supernatural and folk horror. The people of Shadyside and Sunnyvale have spent their lives hearing Sara Fier was a vengeful witch who cursed Shadyside. They’ve also spent their lives believing Shadyside keeps producing serial killers. In the reality of the trilogy, Shadyside is cursed, but not by Sara Fier. The whole story of Sara Fier has a been a lie used to help cover up the lengths generations of the Goode family have gone to secure power and wealth. This lie colors everything people in Shadyside think about themselves, as well as what people in Sunnyvale think about themselves and how both groups think about each other. It wrongly informs all of the efforts the protagonists go through to save themselves and each other in the first two films. Even the nursery rhyme, which they’re using as a kind of impromptu guide to ending the curse is a part of the same disinformation. The Goode’s have used disinformation, over centuries, to cast the one person who could be able to give the people of Shadyside a fighting chance, as a villain.
Leigh Janiak, and her co-writers are horror fans, so they know audiences are going to be on board with the vengeful witch storyline. It’s a well worn trope. It’s also a product of the same kind of disinformation and historical inaccuracy the FEAR STREET trilogy is commenting on. They brilliantly turn that around. We learn in the third film that Sara Fier never was a witch. None of what’s been happening in Shadyside is due to her desire for vengeance on the town. What Sara Fier has to say will save the town. All of the deaths in the first two films, and the deaths they talk about from the history of Shadyside we don’t see, are happening so the Goode’s can keep their exalted level of privilege and so they can silence anyone who gets too close to the truth. There’s also something extremely satisfying in the solution essentially coming from generations of women who’ve been wronged and working together with other people who’ve been wronged by the same generational power. If this isn’t both timely and topical, nothing is.
By using the tropes of horror films from the past, Janiak and company have been able to tell a thoroughly modern story. Right now, many Western countries are struggling with coming to terms with the how much the history people have been taught is shot through with misinformation and disinformation, what that means for a sense of national identity, as well as what so many of the lies told about different communities in individual countries mean for individuals within those communities, how they interact with each other within their borders, and how we all interact with each other beyond those borders.
That Sara Fier was killed in order to prevent her from telling the truth, and has for three centuries been attempting to get the truth out to anyone she could, makes her very far from an evil witch, but instead, the casualty of a power and wealth hungry man, which also squares pretty closely with an accurate history of witch trials. Men, at the time, conducted witch trials as a way to build status and as a result, wealth. They targeted women who didn’t fit the social and gender norms of the time. The people of Shadyside and Sunnyvale have been manipulated by powerful, wealthy men into believing an innocent woman was a villain, and the repetition of trauma Shadyside residence have endured is the result of a curse she placed on them, when the truth is the opposite. That same disinformation was the mechanism being used by those powerful and wealthy men to keep that power and wealth, generation after generation. If this isn’t a deeply apt metaphor the divides we’re seeing in many Western countries right now, including the U.S. and Canada, nothing is. Looking at what happens when women who have been assaulted or harassed by men who happen to be wealthy, powerful or celebrities shows how much truth there is in just this one detail of the story. There are very similar facets revealed in looking at the history of racist rhetoric about Black people in the U.S., as a cover to create economic and institutional conditions which kept already wealthy and powerful white men in their positions. It’s been true of the way LGBTQ people have been treated by wealth and power as well. Disinformation and misinformation have been weapons used by those with power and wealth against anyone they thought could make both good scapegoats and they could profit off of by marginalizing. The FEAR STREET trilogy’s use of our nostalgic feelings for horror films of the past has constructed a brilliant way comment on this, without being glum, nihilistic or preachy. That what is ostensibly a trilogy of popcorn movies would attempt this and succeed is a significant achievement.
Given how lovingly and intelligently the FEAR STREET trilogy employs so many of the tropes of the slasher films of bygone eras while also proving that horror loses nothing by removing the barriers to people whose identities have been sidelined for so long, and still making an important, incisively constructed comment on the world we’re experiencing today, it’s not hyperbolic to say the FEAR STREET trilogy presents a nearly perfect roadmap for approaching nostalgia centered films in the future. We can hold on to so much of what we loved about the films of the past, and still leave behind what was never necessary to them, and what was most harmful in them. By doing so, these films can become a generational bridge, bringing together the fans who’ve been obsessed with horror for decades, and the new generation of fans who are going to have no use for those harmful aspects of the films many of us grew up with. The FEAR STREET trilogy is simultaneously a roadmap and bridge to a better kind of nostalgia, and a better future for horror cinema.
The FEAR STREET Trilogy is available now to watch on Netflix.