By Alex McPherson

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is an immensely enjoyable slasher flick with real heart beneath its ultraviolent set pieces.

Based on the “Fear Street” books by R.L. Stine, “1994” unfolds in the rural town of Shadyside, Ohio. Shadyside has a history of heinous murders stretching back hundreds of years, which some denizens believe involve possessions by a witch, named Sarah Fier, who was executed in 1666. Shadyside residents harbor an intense rivalry with the considerably wealthier neighboring city of Sunnyvale. Our protagonist is Deena (Kiana Madeira), an angsty, rebellious high schooler reeling from a breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who recently moved to Sunnyvale.

Sarah’s curse potentially rears its head again when a skeleton-mask-donning psycho goes on a rampage at a local mall. After a confrontation with Sunnyvalers along a roadway, Sam disturbs the witch’s burial ground and unleashes an evil that resurrects killers from Shadyside’s past to exact revenge. Together, Deena and Sam — joined by Deena’s brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and friends Simon (Fred Hechinger) and Kate (Julia Rehwald) — must band together to lift the curse and live another day. 

With charming characters, palpable stakes, and high production value, director Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is a finely crafted horror film that represents a strong start for her “Fear Street” trilogy.

With hints of “Stranger Things” from the get-go, amplified by a brief appearance from Maya Hawke herself, Janiak’s first entry strikes an effective balance between self-aware fun and nerve-wracking suspense, with a couple of genuinely shocking moments. Indeed, this isn’t a sanitized, family-friendly romp, even though the high school melodrama is sometimes humorous. Blood flows freely, and while the film isn’t exactly “scary,” due in large part to exceedingly predictable jump scares, there are several moments where the carnage hits viciously hard.  

“1994” depicts its youthful characters without condescension, treating them as three-dimensional people with their own flaws, desires, and colorful personalities, portrayed with youthful verve by a pitch perfect cast. All these characters are familiar archetypes, but there are a few wrinkles that add texture, emphasizing their vulnerability in ways that are often amusing, but also build emotional attachment. Deena, skillfully portrayed by Madeira in a standout performance, has a troubled home life and is sent spiraling from her breakup with Sam, resenting her while also being unable to let go.

Sam is similarly layered, being forced to make difficult decisions later on. Josh, a nerdy, inquisitive chap with detailed knowledge of Shadyside’s history, is an instantly likable character who winds up essential for the group’s survival. The squirrely, immature Simon works hard to support his family, while Kate — a high-achieving student — hustles drugs to help pay for her future.

Less noteworthy are the killers themselves — referencing classic horror films such as “Scream” and “The Shining.” They’re over-the-top and not grounded enough to instill genuine fear, but they deliver in the film’s harrowing second half. Combined with fast-paced editing, atmospheric lighting, and a solid score by Marco Beltrami, however, the threats faced by the central characters work well enough to create an edgy, stressful feel to numerous sequences, where plot armour is certainly not guaranteed. 

Sure, the dialogue is a tad uneven and the story doesn’t exactly beg to be closely analyzed, but “1994” knows exactly what kind of film it is and leans into tropes while standing out on its own merits. This is a thrilling, nostalgic watch for fans of the genre and newcomers alike. Hopefully the next installments, releasing on Netflix July 9 and July 16, are equally as successful.

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is the first of a movie trilogy on Netflix, based on the with the others — 1978, to be released July 9, and 1666, to be released July 16. The first one, directed by Leigh Janiak, stars Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Fred Hechinger, Benjamin Flores Jr. and Julia Rehwald. It is rated R for strong bloody violence, drug content, language and some sexual content and runs 1 hour, 47 minutes. It started streaming on Netflix July 2. Alex’s Grade: B+