‘A Marvel universe with horror movies’: Netflix’s Fear Street is a ready-made film franchise

Released as a three-film series over as many weeks, Netflix’s new adaptation of RL Stine’s hit novel series is shaking up traditional distribution models. Louis Chilton speaks to director Leigh Janiak and star Kiana Madeira about what could be the streaming service’s next horror hit

Thursday 01 July 2021 06:41
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<p>Giving you goosebumps: Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger and Kiana Madeira in ‘Fear Street Part 1: 1994'</p>

Giving you goosebumps: Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger and Kiana Madeira in ‘Fear Street Part 1: 1994'

You wait decades for an adaptation of Fear Street – and then three come at once. Well, almost at once. RL Stine’s best-selling teen horror novels, originally published in the 1990s (but revived briefly as a three-part miniseries in 2005 and again from 2014 onwards), have been loosely adapted into a series of films that are arriving on Netflix over three weeks: a ready-made film franchise. “I’ve never seen that done before,” Kiana Madeira, one of the trilogy’s lead actors, tells me. “It’s kind of like binge-watching, for film, and it’s just perfectly timed with people’s attention spans and the way that people are consuming content today. Not everyone wants to wait like a year for another film. I honestly think it’s genius.”

The first entry, out on 2 July, takes place in 1994, and follows a set of high-school students in the town of Shadyside, an American suburb plagued by grisly mysteries and recurrent killing sprees. Deena (Madeira) is the film’s protagonist, a tough but vulnerable heroine who still carries a torch for her ex-girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Welch). In some ways, the film recalls one of Netflix’s biggest original hits, Stranger Things – and not just because they share a cinematographer, in Caleb Heymann, an actor, in Maya Hawke, and another connection in the trilogy’s director, Leigh Janiak, who is married to Stranger Things co-creator Ross Duffer. Like Stranger Things, Fear Street juxtaposes supernatural horror with everyday suburban banality. Fear Street, too, draws heavily on nostalgia (for the increasingly back-in-vogue Nineties rather than Stranger Things’s neon-tinged Eighties). If Stranger Things is indebted to Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Stephen King, Fear Street Part One is pure Nineties Wes Craven.

And Fear Street, perhaps even more so than Stranger Things, makes use of a thumping, banger-heavy soundtrack, with immediately recognisable needle-drops – Cyprus Hill, Iron Maiden, Radiohead, Snoop Dogg, Pixies and Alice Cooper, to name a few – stuffed into every sonic crevice.

Stine is best known as the creator of Goosebumps, the children’s horror series that was adapted into a campy Canadian TV series and a slightly less campy 2015 film starring Jack Black (as Stine himself, in a metafictional twist). But Goosebumps fans might not be ready for some of Fear Street’s gore. There are stabbings. Gruesome dismemberments. Heads turning to goo. “For me, making a slasher movie, there was no world that could exist that was not R-rated,” Janiak, who co-wrote and directed all three Fear Street films, tells me. “There are amazing PG-13 horror movies, but a slasher movie needs to be R-rated. We need those moments that are super bloody, crazy, and just horrifying.”

The Fear Street films are slashers first and foremost. The first instalment plays like a homage to Wes Craven’s Scream, while part two, set at a summer camp in 1978, evokes earlier slashers, and feels at times like a macabre re-imagining of Wet Hot American Summer. The third film, set in 1666, wanders a little further afield, paying its dues to period pieces such as The Witch and The Village, as well as Terrence Malick’s epic The New World.

Adapting Stine’s books, says Janiak, wasn’t a straightforward process. “It was a lot,” she explains. “There’s hundreds of these books. They don’t have a unifying mythology. They would be kind of perfect for an anthology. What we ended up doing was mostly taking inspiration from the spirit of the book… and then we kind of built a new mythology.”

A teenager of the 1990s, Janiak was already familiar with the novel series, and was hired to head up the trilogy of films after an impassioned pitch. “One of the things that made me so excited when [Peter Chernin, one of the film’s producers] approached me was my familiarity with the books and the expansiveness of the universe that RL Stine created. The words that I used in a very kind of Hollywoody way were, ‘You guys are sitting on this opportunity for horror Marvel.’ So basically, a Marvel universe with horror films.”

The distribution method, too, was a key selling point – releasing a series of films in such quick succession hadn’t really been done before. “We wanted to tell this story that involves different generations, and cycles of time, and we were going to go back from ’94 to ’78 to 1666," she says. "It did feel like we needed to have some kind of more traditional movie structure. So to me, I think that while they are movies, they also are kind of this new hybrid thing that lives in this grey area between traditional television and movies, which is awesome. Do we need to put everything in these boxes of ‘this is definitely a movie’ or ‘definitely TV’? I don’t think that’s the world we live in any more.”

Scream queens: Olivia Welch and Kiana Madeira in ‘Fear Street Part 1: 1994’

The logistical task of filming and assembling three feature films at once – even though filming took place pre-pandemic – was a difficult one. Filming took 106 days (“a lot of shooting time – but not that much for three different movies”) and Janiak jovially compares the whole experience to childbirth. “I’m not a mother myself,” she says. “But a lot of my friends who have described this thing of: you go through childbirth, and you’re like, ‘This is terrible’. And then a week later, you’re kind of like, ‘This baby’s amazing’. Ideally, I’d have a little more cushion so it wasn’t such a crazy pace, but it was f***ing awesome.”

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“I love playing the intensity that comes with horror,” says Madeira. “We really didn’t have any casual days. These are crazy films. And that takes a toll on your body. There was a lot of physicality, a lot of emotional depth, and a lot of mental fight that my character has. Filming three movies back-to-back-to-back, that’s exhausting.”

Fear Street features a handful of familiar faces – Community’s Gillian Jacobs, Succession’s Ashley Zukerman – but the leads are relatively unknown. Julia Rehwald is especially charismatic as Kate, Deena’s pill-dealing schoolmate. Madeira turns in an elevated performance in a role that could easily have been boilerplate; she tells me her performance was shaped in part by Denzel Washington – hardly an actor you’d associate with slasher flicks. “He’s so determined and almost regal in the way that he carries himself,” she says. Whether any of the cast will be cannoned into greater fame and recognition the way that Millie Bobby Brown or David Harbour were by Stranger Things is unclear, but the potential is certainly there.

Ted Sutherland, Sadie Sink and director Leigh Janiak behind the scenes of ‘Fear Street Part 2: 1978'

There’s certainly potential, too, for more films down the line, for Janiak’s imagined Marvel-style horrorverse to have a little more sprawl. “I think that we’ve laid this amazing groundwork in these three movies for much more that can exist – in the future or the past. I’m hopeful that audiences will embrace them, and that we’ll be able to continue exploring what those other worlds could be within the universe.”

Netflix audiences have proven themselves receptive to horror in the past. Besides Stranger Things, the Haunting series (...of Hill House and ...of Bly Manor) has been a firm favourite among viewers; Zack Snyder’s gore-splattered Zombie film Army of the Dead was a verified hit just months ago. But slasher films are, in some ways, the purist’s subgenre: horror stripped down to its raw, primal basics. Fear Street adorns these basics with a fair amount of lore and rules, but its core visceral appeal is the same as Scream, or Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street. Whether it’s 1978, or 1994, or 2021, some things never change.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 debuts on Netflix on 2 July

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