Fear Street: 1978 review: A campy Friday the 13th riff where scares are scarce

Fear Street Part Two: 1978, the second installment in Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy for Netflix, winds the proverbial clock back several decades from the first film. The story that started in Fear Street: 1994 continues, with Shadyside teenager Deena Johnson trying to save her girlfriend Sam from the homicidal machinations of the immortal witch Sarah Fier, while circling back to the past in search of a means to lay Fier’s soul to rest. In this chapter of the story, Deena and her brother Josh are forced to turn to the enigmatic shut-in C. Berman (Community’s Gillian Jacobs) for help. A survivor of the Camp Nightwing massacre of 1978, Berman spends the majority of this film recalling the week leading up to that infamous event and the litany of horrors that ensued in its wake.

The film opens on a shot of “Ziggy” Berman, (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink) racing through the forests of Camp Nightwing as she’s pursued and harassed by her fellow campers. Ziggy is a problem child, constantly getting into trouble with her peers and struggling to make friends. It doesn’t help that her sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) is one of the camp’s counselors, an ambitious, innocent-seeming overachiever with aspirations of leaving both Shadyside and it’s more prosperous sister city Sunnyvale behind for a better life elsewhere. Fear Street: 1978 further explicates the social division between the campers, counselors, and the communities at large, offering glimpses at the lives of characters whose actions will have an impact on the events of Fear Street: 1994, including Nick (Ted Sutherland) and Will Goode, the future sheriff and mayor of Sunnyvale, respectively.

Emily Rudd and Sadie Sink as Cindy and “Ziggy” Berman in Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Photo: Netflix

Just as its predecessor makes stylistic allusions to films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Fear Street: 1978 unabashedly riffs off horror classics like Friday the 13th and Halloween, not only in its setting, but also in its archetypal characters, like the alpha-male meathead and the druggie counselor. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a lack of novelty and experimentation compared to the first installment. It leans entirely into its borrowed tropes and conventions, bringing in few surprises or iterations. It’s unclear so far how Fear Street: 1978, and for that matter the trilogy as a whole, benefits from its interconnected structure. This new film doesn’t change much of what audiences know from having watched the previous one.

What difference there is that Fear Street: 1978 feels more like a tragedy than a horror romp. Viewers already know who the killer is from passing mentions in Fear Street: 1994, and if they didn’t watch that, they’ll still know within the film’s first 20 minutes. It’s also clear which of the Berman sisters survives in the end, as the film isn’t half as clever or effective as it assumes it is in obfuscating which of the two is telling the story. The gratifications of Fear Street: 1978 are not in its few surprises, but in its continued exploration of the history and dynamics of two social-stratified communities separated along the fault lines of unexplained affluence and inexplicable horror.

An establishing shot of Camp Nightwing, the setting of Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Photo: Netflix

But that’s intellectualizing. This is a slasher movie, after all, so let’s get down to brass tacks. The violence and gore is decent, albeit less inventive than in Fear Street 1994 — there are no kills here as unapologetically gruesome as the supermarket finale in the 1994 chapter. The supporting cast of characters aren’t particularly memorable, although the dynamic between Cindy and her former friends Alice and Arnie is interesting for the way it parallels that of Deena, Kate, and Simon in the previous film. One of the standout sequences of Fear Street: 1978 is the discovery of the “dark heart” of Sarah Fier’s curse, a writhing pustule of flesh swarming with flies from which the previous Shadyside killers emerge from in the film’s final act.

Like most middle chapters, Fear Street 1978 struggles to stand on its own, rather than functioning primarily as a bridge between the trilogy’s first and final installments. The final 15 minutes of the film are inarguably its strongest, jumping forward back to 1994 as Deena and Josh exhume Sarah Fier’s hand at the tree where she was hanged, now the site of the Shadyside Mall, where Heather Watkins was murdered in the previous film. As Deena attempts to lay Fier’s remains to rest, she’s struck by a vision not unlike what Sam experienced, one that seemingly transports her back in time to 1666, the year when Sunnyvale and Shadyside were founded, and the origin of the witch’s curse.

The question of how the former’s legacy ties to the century-spanning misfortunes of the latter is left to be answered in the forthcoming finale, Fear Street Part Three: 1666. The Fear Street trilogy’s middling middle chapter is a prime example of the inherent pitfalls of taking the supernatural-horror premise of one movie, and stretching it across the space of three films.

Fear Street: 1978 and Fear Street: 1994 are now streaming on Netflix, with the third film in the series arriving July 16.

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