*** This article contains spoilers ***
For at least half a decade there seemed to be two major groups amongst American horror fans; there was the crowd that celebrated the Saw franchise and fell deeper into gore, and then there were the fans relegated to watching only American remakes of often better-written and directed Asian horror films. In the last few years though, an explosion of new, emerging directors and writers have expanded the horror genre in American cinema. Back-to-back from 2017 to 2019 we had The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Hereditary, and Us, each film respectively garnering huge new audiences and showcasing a visionary outlook for the genre.
When Parasite swept the Academy Awards last year it wasn’t only a shift in the international market of cinema, it was a shift in perceptions of horror within critical film circles. The blending of horror with other genres has also been a saving grace for horror, which has too long been relegated to audience adoration and critical scorn. This year the reinvention of horror cinema has not slowed down for even a moment. Only a few months ago the celebration of the revival of Candyman directed by Nia DaCosta and its success were being written about in nearly every film trade magazine.
Which brings us to the release earlier this summer of the Netflix trilogy Fear Street directed by Leigh Janiak, one of the more unique horror franchises to come to the small screen. The pandemic shifted the distribution plan for the project, which was originally slated to have a monthly release in theaters for each film. The transition, however, to a streaming-platform suited the format well with releases on each subsequent Friday of July 2021. Another aspect that made this project unique was the R.L. Stine source material. This wasn’t simply a retread or adaptation of a foreign film. Instead it was an original American pulp for teens.
As a viewer the very first thing that intrigued me about the films were the fearless female protagonists in each installment and the final reveal *spoiler alert* of how the witch’s curse that ties all the films together was falsely attributed to Sara Fier – a young girl in the 1600s hanged for witchcraft. The evil spread to the fictional town of Shadyside is instead caused by a much more common villain – a greedy man with no guilt about the innocent lives that are being taken to fuel his prosperous lifestyle, and later those of his descendants as well. The film is just as much about gender politics and power as it is about witchcraft and folklore. The reason the curse was able to be enacted in 1666 and the reason it continues to plague this town in the second installment is because of the belief in the words of men who explain away the violent occurrences that keep befalling each generation – as well as, the disbelief in the words of both women and girls that are trying to break the pattern.
Sarah Fier, the main focus of the third film Fear Street Part Three: 1666, is the original victim of this curse as she is punished for the actions of others and also chooses to sacrifice herself to save the life of her lover. Her storyline addresses the trauma of the witch trials in American history, and ultimately the fear of female power and independence from tenants of traditional society that fed the flames of suspicion and led in part to labelling someone a ‘witch’. The other female leads, Ziggy and Deena, also rebel within the constraints of their time frames and are ostrasized because of it.
The belief amongst most of their town is that Sarah Fier is to blame and nothing can stop these waves of violence. In Sunnyvale, the perfect town in contrast to Shadyside, the going hypothesis is that some teenagers just go crazy every now and again in Shadyside leading to brutal murders. No one looks further into the crimes or considers many alternative theories, but our leads push to find the truth and get further in their efforts to stop the curse than those before them. However being outcasts and being teenage girls seems to prevent them from being taken seriously or heard even when they hold the clues needed to solve the mystery. Tellingly, both girls, though separated by sixteen years, go to the police to raise their concerns. They are disregarded while the antagonist behind each of the most recent murder sprees, a descendant of the Goode family, not only holds power within the police department but later becomes the sheriff. They -unable to seek help from the symbol of power and authority within their societies and so must fight for the lives of their friends, family, and partners alone.
Along with their status as outcasts within their communities all three protagonists share the trait of selflessness. They each are given a chance within their stories to flee the killing spree they find themselves in but all three decide to work to break the curse and attempt to save a life instead. Although in Part I and Part II Deena and Ziggy survive, it is at the expense of many people and they fail to end the curse’s cycle. While Ziggy, as an adult in 1994, seems burnt out by her quest to get people to believe what happened to her and her sister was real in 1978, Deena urges her to team up with the survivors in order to – try again to stop the bloodshed. It seems clear that if they do nothing, no one else will step up to do the job either. While Deena is fighting to bring back her possessed girlfriend Sam, that the curse has in its grasp, part of their shared motivation and what gets Ziggy to come onboard is the desire to save the town of Shadyside and its inhabitants. They get no credit or acknowledgment for it but they are essentially the town heroes in this tale, fighting for a brighter outlook for the next generation.
The story begins with two girls, Sarah Fier and Hannah in 1666, having to hide their love and the discovery of their secret union bringing about their branding as witches. As stated previously, in order to save Hannah, Sarah Fier admits to all crimes laid against them and is hanged for it. In juxtaposition, Deena in 1994 is able to save her girlfriend Sam from the curse and they are both together and out at the conclusion of their story. Fear Street covers over 300 years of history among three films, indicating that this much time has to pass not only for the true story to come out, but also for two girls to express their love openly. In 1994, the cast of characters successfully break the curse and dismantle the power structure between Shadyside and Sunnyvale. Maybe none of the protagonists become mayors or sheriffs, like the Goode family, but at least they are finally able to live their lives as their own, a far contrast to the restrictive, punishing society of the 1600s.
While this franchise, which seems to indicate that it could be gearing up for more films, gives in to the trappings of nostalgia, both with the period nature of each film and the classic horror elements – summer camp, witch hunt, high school – it still offers something new to audiences. An ensemble cast with shifting roles in the films, a hard R-rating for teen horror, and an LGBTQ+ relationship at the center of the story are things I haven’t seen in a while in this format. This franchise makes me excited for the future of both the director Leigh Janiak and streamers who are already carving out a space for themselves in the film industry. Horror is not dead. In fact it’s having a renaissance and for any new or original horror fan it’s an exciting time to dive into the genre’s new releases.