Written by Mekado Murphy
A killer is on the loose in the film trilogy Fear Street. But not only does this Netflix horror extravaganza leave a significant amount of blood in its wake, it also sprays the screen with a gusher of pop culture references.
Set mostly in the fictional town Shadyside and based on the books by R.L. Stine, the trilogy weaves through multiple decades, with one film steeped in the mall and high school culture of 1994, another set in 1978 at summer camp and a third starting in 1666 when the town was a village. The trilogy speeds through characters, moods and genres, including teen romance and full-on slasher. The movies, on some level, are like a Netflix algorithm of styles, all wrapped up in a bingeable package.
Amid the many twists and turns, the films track the town and the outsize murder problem it has had for generations. Is witchcraft involved? Could it be Satan? Or are people just mean? Director Leigh Janiak aims to keep audiences on their toes, while also leaving them humming catchy tunes and thinking about both Halloween and “Halloween.”
Below is a look at 10 influences that horror and comedy buffs alike may spot.
A Gen-Xer’s CD Collection
In the first film, set in 1994, mall culture (B. Dalton included) is alive and well. So is just about every song a teenager or college student might have listened to at the time. The needle drops bounce from Nine Inch Nails to Bush to, damn, even Sophie B. Hawkins. The songs are used somewhat the way Quentin Tarantino might: to project the thoughts of characters, including the lead, Deena (Kiana Madeira), who is introduced in a moment of discontent with Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.”
Back to the Future
While there’s no DeLorean here, the adventurous spirit and the way revelations are understood across decades are reminiscent of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future movies. The third installment in both trilogies hurtles us quite a ways back — to the Wild West in Back to the Future and to the 17th-century season of the witch in Fear Street.
The ’70s and ’80s Slasher
While the Fear Street movies dive into all kinds of supernatural lore, the most visceral elements of menace involve knives and axes. The 1978 summer-camp setting can’t help but remind us of some good old-fashioned Friday the 13th Crystal Lake mayhem. The Netflix entry ticks off some creative kills that would make both Jason from those movies and Michael Myers of Halloween proud.
There is a bit of a “meddling kids” aspect to Fear Street, with a group of outsiders coming together to solve age-old mysteries. When the characters are researching the history of the town and its often-unsolved murders, you can feel Daphne and Fred of Scooby-Doo hovering just outside the frame. Deena gives off Velma vibes, and the movie has its own Shaggy in the character of Simon (Fred Hechinger), a slacker and trickster who finds himself in a few Zoinks! moments.
Lesbian Period Romances
Recent years have brought a handful of solemn period romances with women at their center, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. The trend has been notable enough to be parodied on Saturday Night Live. Add Fear Street to the list with the emerging relationship between Sarah Fier (also played by Madeira) and Hannah Miller (Olivia Scott Welch) in 1666. The two keep their passions secret, but their chemistry is as strong as the period accents.
While there’s not an ’80s entry in the series, John Hughes’ influence is hard to shake here, as Fear Street elevates the misfits, putting them front and center. With her disaffected, one-hand-in-her-pocket outlook, Deena brings to mind Allison Reynolds, Ally Sheedy’s downbeat character from The Breakfast Club. And the bookish gamer Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) in Fear Street has much in common with the Hughes creation Brian Johnson, played with classic geekiness by Anthony Michael Hall.
A staple of the horror world, possession — by spirits, witches or something worse — can add an interesting wrinkle to a narrative. How can you reason with a killer if they are possessed? (Answer: you cannot.) Fear Street has fun with this premise, converting some characters from harmless one moment to bloodthirsty the next.
In the 1978 installment, the bloody prom prank from Stephen King’s novel (and subsequent Brian De Palma film) factors into the plot with the ridiculed-but-resilient Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink), who seeks revenge on those who have wronged her. But in “Fear Street,” pig’s blood is replaced with a much more squirm-inducing alternative. Nonetheless, Ziggy harbors Carrie qualities, as an outsider who frequently faces the derision of other campers and constructs ways to fight back. She doesn’t have to turn up the revenge quite to Carrie levels, though. The killer on the rampage can do that.
Summer Camp Comedies
While the 1978 installment has its share of vengeance and slashery, there are plenty of buoyant moments, too. With its short shorts, rowdy counselors and wacky shenanigans, the film owes plenty to comedies like Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs, David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer and Ron Maxwell’s Little Darlings.
Olde School Witchery
Janiak, the director, has said that her shooting style for the 1666 installment was inspired by Terrence Malick’s The New World. Indeed, some of the open-air ensemble scenes conjure thoughts of that 2005 drama about the founding of Jamestown. But the rural setting, the early English accents and the looming threats of witchcraft more quickly bring to mind The Witch, Robert Eggers’ meticulous and sober 2016 horror mystery. With grubby, candlelit interiors and a dark yet chilling relationship to animals (this time, some unpleasant dealings with a pig rather than Eggers’ use of a creepy goat), this Fear Street entry makes 17th-century living look painstaking and bleak.