Fear Street Part One: 1994. MA. 107 mins. Three stars
Of late, Netflix HQ have had a bit of a reshuffle of their executive and the media industry has been watching carefully to see what this means as they watch the company invest in new talent and cut others.
But they have made a very canny investment with the R.L. Stine young adult novel series Fear Street, which released more than 50 titles and made its publishers more than $80 million in sales, giving Netflix years of intellectual property to harvest.
Audiences will be more familiar with Stine's series written for a younger audience, Goosebumps, which also begat a successful television series as well as a very fun 2015 film starring Jack Black.
Stine's is the only big name of the production, its young cast of mostly unknown performers probably kept production costs down for this initial run of three feature-length episodes to be released over three weeks.
This first episode is a brilliant homage to the 1990s slasher film, wonderfully executed, and I meant that as both a pun and a compliment.
For the teens of Shadyside Ohio, in addition to the usual teenage dramas and surging hormones, they have to contend with a centuries-old curse upon their town, placed by a one-handed witch.
Hanged by her suspicious community in 1666, Sarah Fier placed a curse that has made the town famous for a cyclical series of brutal murders.
In 1994 Shadyside, chatroom-addicted teen Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr) might make a good police profiler one day. He has meticulously researched the centuries of brutal events that have made his small town world famous, and filled the walls of his family home basement with newspaper clippings of his study.
His older sister Deena (Kiana Madiera) has too much going on in her own life to be bothered with Josh's nonsense, namely the dramatic end of her secret relationship with Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), a cheerleader for rival high school Sunnyvale.
When some highway shenanigans see Sam in a car accident, she unknowingly touches the burial site of the witch Sarah Fier and the curse awakens itself, centred squarely on the troubled teen.
Sam, along with Josh and Deena and their drug-dealing friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), find themselves pursued through the streets of Shadyside by the reawakened former henchmen of the witch. They're killers from previous decades or centuries that include a hooded axe man and a psychopath in a skeleton mask.
The brilliant Scream was released in the mid 1990s, and this film kicks off with that Scream trope of killing off your most famous cast member in its opening scene. In this film that role belongs to Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman.
Director Leigh Janiak shot a few episodes of the Scream television spin-off and innately understands what audiences want. Along with her screenwriting collaborator Phil Graziadei, she moves her plot along at a pace and while not foregoing them entirely, doesn't weigh her characters down with too much motivation and backstory. I'm going to assume this is because they have the luxury of drip-feeding this over the three films.
The coming two instalments are set in 1978 and 1666 respectively. As much as I'm looking forward to the various narrative threads resolving themselves, I'm also enjoying that sense of expectation of awaiting the next episode. It feels like the good old days of free-to-air television.
This isn't the first attempt to bring Stine's Fear Street books to the screen. A 1998 television pilot titled Ghosts of Fear Street did not garner a big enough audience to justify a series.
Parents should be aware that the Stine name might encourage their kids to switch on, and that's obviously what the producers want too, but some scenes are extremely graphic. Note that as Fear Street isn't out in theatres, it didn't need to apply for a formal classification rating, and so that MA rating is my own, based on two particularly violent scenes (with terrific gore effects).