We’ve come to the end of Netflix’s surprisingly satiating summer of Fear Street, a three-week horror event that’s surpassed admittedly subterranean expectations. Based on teen fiction god RL Stine’s sprawling set of books, the trilogy has taken us from 1994 with a riff on Scream to 1978 with a play on Friday the 13th and now back to 1666 for a take on … well, what exactly?
Director Leigh Janiak has said that her main visual inspiration for the threequel was the rotten beauty of The New World, but that’s where the Terrence Malick comparisons start and end (his films have been frustratingly light on both eye-gouging and Oasis needle-drops) and instead, rather than being tied to a specific source of inspiration, 1666 is a bit of everything. It’s The Crucible meets The Witch meets It meets It Follows meets the trilogy’s ultimate overarching influence Scooby-Doo. Again, like the two films that came before, it’s something that skirts very close to being a disaster, but Janiak exerts total tonal control, knowing when to wink and when to keep a straight face, making this chapter just as effective, a rousing finale to a winning new franchise.
As we left the events of 1978, we were yanked back to 1994 as Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr) tried to put an end to the curse once and for all. But in trying to reassemble the body of Sarah Fier, the witch whose curse has resulted in gory massacres for the beleaguered town of Shadyside, Deena is yanked back even further, to where it all began: 1666. She becomes Fier, reliving her final days as a forbidden romance with a local girl leads to accusations of witchcraft and the answer to the mystery that’s taken centuries to solve.
It takes a little bit longer third time around for Fear Street to find its groove, this particular period setting not as much of an obvious or comfortable fit for Stine and Janiak, at least initially. The decision to populate 1666 with faces from previous chapters is both welcome (it allows us more time with some of the talented actors, and fan favourites, who died too fast and too soon) and jarring (there are a lot of … accent choices) and while the downbeat darkness of 1978 certainly put a dampener on the first film’s nostalgic neon flash, there’s even less room for fun here. The grimness of the setting, and the predicament that Fier finds herself in (one that has loosely believable roots in reality), requires a stony face both from the characters and from us, a transition that takes time to take hold in a franchise that has mostly embraced hokeyness. But Janiak soon finds her stride, choreographing some memorable nastiness as well as a sad emotional sting before we head back to the full-throated 90s.
The second half of the film is a blast, ebulliently returning to the goofy conviction and high energy of the first chapter with a crowd-pleasing mall-set climax. The buildup, over two films and 300 years, brings with it the weight of generational trauma, of what Shadysiders have endured for so long, tragedies that have haunted them and the image of the town, and the twisty specifics of why this has been happening allow for a surprisingly powerful showdown. The Fear Street trilogy has refreshingly avoided much subtext – they’re horror films too busy trying to entertain us to really be about something else – but the lightly etched throughline of lower-class status being a curse is well-highlighted in the finale without being overly underlined, and the earnestness that Janiak has fostered means that even a “let’s go save the day” speech comes off as affecting rather than affected.
The acting is again a major sell, from the charming brother-sister duo of Madeira and Flores Jr to an expanded role for Gillian Jacobs, giving strong Laurie Strode vibes, to Darrell Britt-Gibson perfecting the impossible: non-annoying slasher comic support. The unwavering energy of the cast makes it impossible not to jump onboard their gussied-up Mystery Machine and while many key lessons will be learned from the trilogy’s success, thoughtful casting will surely be up near the top.
It’s the end of the road for now but I’d bet on a swift return to Fear Street some time soon (make sure you watch those credits …). Janiak has found a way to add new life to old material, gifting us with the rare horror franchise that makes us want more rather than less, the prospect of an expanded universe seeming less like a curse and more of a blessing.