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Netflix's 'Fear Street' pays tribute to classic horror films but intentionally changes up the formula

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Jul 22, 2021, 10:05 PM EDT

A few minutes into Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy and it quickly becomes clear that the series is not just riffing on R.L. Stine’s book series of the same name, but that it’s also paying homage to a few classic films within the horror genre, while still serving up a trio of teen slashers.

First there’s the film series' opener, 1994, which is an ode to the now-iconic beginning of Scream. Up next, 1978 serves up summer camp scares that draw on Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And finally, 1666 channels The Witch and The Crucible.

But what sets apart this trilogy from other horror series before it is the fact that it centers on the kinds of characters who don’t usually take center stage in horror movies — let alone go on to save the day and survive them. According to director Leigh Janiak, this was part of what attracted her to making the franchise in the first place.

"There’s been so many brilliant movies already made. This opportunity to provide representation that really doesn’t exist in those movies is why we should re-approach the slasher genre,” Janiak tells SYFY WIRE. “The characters that we’re following, the journey that we’re on emotionally with these people, that can be updated and new. That can be the characters that normally would be killed in these movies now having their day in the sun. [So] that was the touchstone and the thing we kept coming back to."

She goes on to add, "And while we were paying homage, we didn’t want it just to be parody, and that was because we felt we could achieve that by giving these characters that space."

At the heart of all three movies are female relationships, depicting the complex bonds that can exist between women. There’s 1994’s rekindled romance between Deena (The Flash’s Kiana Madeira) and her cheerleader ex-girlfriend Sam (Agent Carter’s Olivia Scott Welch) that stretches across all three movies; Deena first tries to save Sam from a centuries-old curse, and then later from the spirit possessing her. It’s followed by1978’s fraught relationship between Cindy (Dynasty’s Emily Rudd) and Ziggy Berman (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), a pair of sisters who don’t see eye to eye following their father walking out on their family; as well as Cindy’s own friendship with her friend Alice (A Single Man’s Ryan Simpkins), which itself has queer undertones. And finally, there’s 1666’s Sarah Fier (Madeira, again) and her growing attraction for Hannah Miller (Welch), which sees them both cast as witches.

"We wanted to fill in the world in a different way, so there was something special about making Sam and Deena’s relationship the primary driving force throughout the three movies," explains Janiak. "So it made sense that we could show the sister relationship with Cindy and Ziggy… And then we got to explore the nuances of female friendships with Cindy and Alice and have Cindy and Alice’s journey be a way that Cindy could repair and bring herself to understand the mistakes that she had made with Ziggy."

She continues, "It was just about showing another aspect of human relationship and interaction that, again, I think doesn’t often get to be center stage in film and TV."

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It’s these nuances and intersections of identity that allow the various characters throughout all three films to subvert the roles that have been thrust on them, and present them in interesting ways. This is clearest with Deena herself, who becomes the "final girl" not once, but twice. And not only is she a lesbian, but she also presents more butch, while also being Black — three things that already mark her as quite different.

"Deena is a woman of color and is a queer woman in a time that’s not even as progressive as it is now, even though we still have ways to come," says Madeira of her character. "But in the ‘90s and the 1600s, it was just a different world then too, and I think the fact that she’s been told she’s other and she’s different and weird and that she doesn’t fit into what Sunnyvale would consider to be a road to be successful, I think that’s such a driving force for her."

Madeira thinks that these differences also push the other characters battling against the forces of evil alongside Deena, namely her nerdy younger brother Josh (Game Shaker's Benjamin Flores Jr.), who frequents AOL chat rooms to discuss the many serial killers that have haunted Shadyside over the years; and Kate (newcomer Julia Rehwald), Deena’s enterprising cheerleading best friend, who is also Filipina.

"It’s a group of marginalized people who have been told that they’re always going to get the short end of the stick," says Madeira. "Seeing characters like that be the protagonist and be heroes, that’s just so nice to see, after being pressed and seeing people rise from that. People who have faced those things in their lives have a certain fight in them, and that makes them really resilient and really strong."

In this way, the horrors at play in Fear Street are not only supernatural, but they’re systemic as well, with each of the characters going up against an unfair system, as much as they are trying to survive a crew of undead masked killers. 

"We were trying to be in the slasher sub-genre, but then we also wanted to have these supernatural aspects which made it feel different and new from the slasher genre," says Janiak. "And then the really big idea was [to be] able to trace back and say the real monster at the heart of all this is actually a human figure who did a very grounded, real-world thing, albeit ultimately supernatural."

This is one of the biggest throughlines of the films, drawing a line between all three movies. Indeed, many of the issues that are present in the '90s are also very much at play in the '70s, and even the 1600s, and each set of characters has to reckon with them. 

"The world has always looked versions of the same," says Janiak. "It's just about what we've been given to consume or understand as being fair representation."

All three Fear Street films can be streamed on Netflix.