The famous R in the film rating "Rated R" stands for restricted, which is a way for the MPAA to say that the film includes naughty stuff that isn't meant for anyone under the age of 17. But that's merely a suggestion, as we all know there are certain R-rated movies that are clearly designed for teens as young as 14 years old or so to check out, with or without parental supervision. They're obvious when you see them, and you'll notice all the signs in Netflix's Fear Street trilogy, a business experiment conducted by Netflix in which the three movies were released over three consecutive Fridays to turn the trilogy into a 15-day event. The first two movies got a good deal of social media chatter going, but with the third one out there, I think it will actually have some lasting impact with younger people. We may see some "I did it" bragging rights, more than what's typical for a newly served portion of "streaming content."
The three movies (clocking in total at under six hours, so less than a typical series, but with quality, medium-budget production values) are not exactly masterpieces of cinema. But Fear Street has the juice of the "forbidden fruit" dripping down its chin. Most adults, myself included, will recognize that it's "kinda dumb," but you need to remember what it's like to be of the age where a trip to Spencer's Gifts is an illicit joy. That audience, the one that isn't technically "supposed" to be watching, will love it.
The trilogy, subtitled 1994, 1978, and 1666, are also exercises in form. The first is a play on the Scream-led teen horror renaissance, which is a little weird because the primary value of Scream was that it was something of a post-modern film, aware of horror movie tropes. Fear Street: 1994 plays it more straight than you might think (and luxuriates in the "mainstream alternative" music of the time), but that doesn't mean it is exactly in the real world, either. For example, people keep getting murdered in the town of Shadyside, and aside from a quick vigil, no one gets too worked up about it.
The first murders we witness are at a mall (featuring a B. Dalton's, Orange Julius, and Software Etc.) and when our heroes (a brother-sister team played by Kiana Madeira and Benjamin Flores Jr., plus her girlfriend, played by Olivia Scott Welch) start to dig around they see how it is all connected to a witch's curse that comes once every generation.
Meeting up with a lone survivor from "last time" jumps the action back to 1978 (probably the best of the three movies) with action told in the style of Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, or The Burning. The violence gets surprisingly gross (I picture heads diving under couch pillows at sleepovers!) and the music choices are an appropriate mix of AM hits. (Though I'm not so sure summer camp kids back then were listening to the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," but I get the connection because the '94 film has the ubiquitous Cowboy Junkies remake.)
In part three we go back in time, and the vibe is like a cross of a current "elevated" art house horror with the cast from a CW show. Our lead actress from part one, Kiana Madeira, assumes the role of the instigating witch, Sarah Fier (get it???) and Olivia Scott Welch is her love, Hannah. Way back in Puritan times the community is, not to understate it, less accepting of LGBT people, so it is from this forbidden romance that the town's legacy of terror begins. (But not how you think; naturally, there's a twist.)
I can not lie and say I actually understand every dot and dash of Sarah Fier's powers, or what the rules are concerning Fear Street's many undead villains, but I really don't think this is the point. This is mostly upbeat, springy stuff, with good jokes here and there, and no bad performances. No really good ones either, but that's okay.
Adults who actually remember what being a teenager was like will recognize that these films, all directed by Leigh Janiak with different co-screenwriters and based on the R.L. Stine horror series, are chockablock with what kids want to see: lusty hook-ups, cavalier attitudes toward drugs, and vile, gruesome murder played for laughs. Parents should welcome it, because while the violence does push the limit, it is done in a non torture-porn way. No one will be having nightmares from this. Younger teens will look at these films like the foreboding high diving board, walking close to the edge and maybe, with friends, having the guts to jump off.
All told, this is a big win for Netflix, because it's something just a little bit different. As a streaming exclusive it is perfect for young people staying up all night, and maybe even sneaking it without permission. Back in my day you had to buy a ticket to something else and slither into the next auditorium. The kids today don't know how lucky they have it.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
All three Fear Street films are now streaming on Netflix.