Part One – 1994
Directed by Leigh Janiak. Screenplay by Phil Graziadei & Janiak.
Starring Maya Hawke, Charlene Amoia, David W. Thompson, Noah Bain Garret, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Ashley Zukerman, Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, & Fred Hechinger.
Rated R / 107 minutes
Drama / Horror / Mystery
★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Part Two – 1978
Directed by Leigh Janiak. Screenplay by Zak Olkewicz & Janiak.
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Matthew Zuk, Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Olivia Scott Welch, Sadie Sink, Brandon Spink, Chiara Aurelia, Marcelle LeBlanc, Eden Campbell, Ted Sutherland, Michael Provost, Drew Scheid, Jacqi Vene, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Ryan Simpkins, Sam Brooks, & Jordana Spiro.
Rated R / 109 minutes
Drama / Horror / Mystery
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Part Three – 1666
Directed by Leigh Janiak. Screenplay by Phil Graziadei, Kate Trefry, & Janiak.
Starring Kiana Madeira, Elizabeth Scopel, Benjamin Flores Jr., Randy Havens, Julia Rehwald, Matthew Zuk, Fred Hechinger, Michael Chandler, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Olivia Scott Welch, Lacy Camp, McCabe Slye, Ashley Zukerman, Jordana Spiro, & Jeremy Ford.
Rated R / 112 minutes
Drama / Horror / Mystery
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)Let us appreciate that in a single year, within several weeks, we were gifted three different horror films directed and co-written by a woman. Now, we need more. Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy, based upon the nostalgic R.L. Stine book series, is not just a notch on the belt of the fight for better representation in the horror genre, it’s a trilogy of films packing a heavy thematic punch in spite of a few missteps here or there. From the first film to the third, Janiak’s trilogy explores historical misogyny and homophobia, and how their consequences echo brutally across time.
The plot starts in 1994, when a massacre in Shadyside barely makes a blip on the national radar, considering it’s “Killer Capital, U.S.A.” People in town, especially the young folk, are sure it’s the result of an infamous witch, Sarah Fier, who cursed the town when she was executed in 1666. Deena Johnson (Kiana Madeira) and her closeted girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) are having serious relationship issues when they find themselves pulled into Shadyside’s horrific history. Because though the first film’s plot begins in 1994, the real story of Shadyside started hundreds of years ago in 1666. Deena, as well as Sam and their friends, actually winds up taking a trip back to 1666, getting a look at Shadyside’s history for herself. Can she, or anybody else, stop what’s plaguing their town?
Fear Street depicts the differences between Sunnyvale and Shadyside through social divisions. One of the prominent divisive points portrayed in the films is that of class: Sunnyvale symbolises the rich, Shadyside symbolises the poor. Like in real life, the media questions the latest massacre in Shadyside: “How do we end this cycle of violence?” We see the young folks in Shadyside dreaming of escape to a better place where they can find opportunities, not only in terms of work and careers but also in terms of their social lives. For instance, Shadyside’s hostile to queers particularly, though women aren’t very safe, either. There’s also a host of other symptoms indicating social decay in the town: one girl cuts herself frequently, Deena’s father grappled with addiction, continual violence, nothing but low-income jobs. Apart from the witch’s revenge, these many social ills are the other curses on Shadyside.
The trilogy best presents class divisions in the 1974 film, such as through Cindy and Ziggy’s working class family. The sisters have different perspectives on their hopes of getting out of Shadyside to create a better life; Cindy’s determined to get out, while Ziggy believes they’ll never escape their social class or their town. Best, or worst, of all is the class division at Camp Nightwing. The counsellors get everyone prepared to play a massive game of war with coloured shirts used to distinguish people from Shadyside and Sunnyvale, thus turning class divisions into play. Although class is a huge element in what divides the towns from Fear Street there’s also the enduring, violent heteronormativity of Sunnyvale and Shadyside that creates the most divisions.
Janiak’s films don’t use queer characters as props, or include them to meet a quota, they genuinely, and thoughtfully, explore queer issues. Deena, in spite of her own faults, is seen as a “bull dyke freak” who’s trying to corrupt Sam, a girl still confused about her own sexuality and how to confront it. The reality is that Sam’s still in the closet and she’s grappling with the morality instilled in her by a small town and its ideology. Some people found Deena to be toxic, whereas she mostly comes off as an insecure teen trying her hardest to hold onto the girl she loves in a little town bent on tearing them apart.
We see the cops play a role in reinforcing heteronormativity throughout Sunnyvale and Shadyside. One cop, who runs into Sam and Deena, says: “Go find your boyfriends. Tell them you need to relax.” He’s both pushing heteronormativity and being grossly sexual towards underage girls. This is no surprise, but it ties directly into with the way the Fear Street trilogy portrays witches as connected to queerness, since witches were often persecuted for violations of heteronormative values, such as lesbianism. Deena and Sam’s struggle with queerness in small town America parallels perfectly with the story of Sarah Fier in 1666.
“The truth shall be your curse”
Fear Street‘s strongest quality as a trilogy is how it deals with Shadyside’s Gothic history of witches rolled up into its themes of misogyny and anti-queerness. One of the first misogynistic images that starts revealing Shadyside’s dominant heteronormative culture is the blowup doll in 1994’s opening sequence when the killer’s stalking Heather (Maya Hawke). It’s only a subtle image, but the use of the doll—a misogynistic image of a woman as a toy for male pleasure—as a brief distraction, in place of Heather, starts to build a narrative about Shadyside from the beginning of the film.
A great, and sort of funny, moment regarding both misogyny and anti-queerness is in Fear Street: 1666. In one scene, a guy getting turned on has his erection laughed at, resulting in his toxic masculine revenge against women, specifically queer women when he points out Sarah Fier and Hannah Miller as witches responsible for their town’s misfortune. Again, it’s the enduring, hateful ideologies in Shadyside that are seen most prominently throughout the Fear Street trilogy.
The perpetual misogyny and homophobia in Shadyside is ultimately indicative of how historically intolerant attitudes take root in places and never let go, enduring over centuries. The hanging tree that was once used to murder Sarah Fier in 1666 transforms into the centrepiece of the Shadyside Mall, built atop the ground where it stood. Here, we see the combining forces of capitalism, homophobia, and misogyny in a striking image, illustrating how thoroughly entwined Shadyside is with its despicable history, as a symbol of violence committed against a queer woman becomes a fixture in the local mall.
Fear Street further depicts how those attitudes continue to manifest in violent ways, through the character of Nick Goode (Ashley Zukerman). In 1974, Nick, who becomes sheriff when he gets older, helped blame the camp tragedy on one of the “fucking Shadysiders,” and he, a man, was believed, whereas Ziggy’s story was dismissed as hysteria. Nick’s an important character because he’s an arm of the state via his role as sheriff in Shadyside, and the way he appears as his ancestor Solomon in 1666 then as himself in the 1994 timeline shows how legacies of misogyny and anti-queerness get ingrained in our institutions over time.
the past is never really past.”
As someone who grew up on R.L. Stine literature it thrilled me to see Fear Street being adapted into films. Leigh Janiak’s debut feature Honeymoon so impressed me that I made sure to pay attention to anything else she’d go on to do. Her work in television has been just as interesting: she directed an episode of the underrated Outcast, as well as two episodes of the Scream series, and an episode recently from Panic. There’s no doubt that the Fear Street trilogy is some of her best work to date, specifically 1978 and 1666. Janiak gives us the best of both Fear Street worlds, merging the series’s supernatural and slasher elements into a fascinating mix of horror.
The Fear Street films do the social issues in them justice by not overpowering their presence in the story, using witchcraft as a literal plot point and a metaphor that encompasses anti-queer sentiment and misogyny. Many films about witchcraft will use witches as a way to tell an allegorical tale about the historical mistreatment of women, or queer people, yet Janiak puts it all together in a neat little package. Fear Street touches on many issues at once, though never loses sight of the biggest one: men are a horror, they have been for centuries, and they’ll continue to be for the foreseeable future.