There’s plenty to question or criticize when it comes to Netflix — like, why the aversion to movies from the 20th century? — but the streaming service deserves plenty of praise in other areas. Case in point, the Fear Street trilogy turning R.L. Stine‘s teen terrors into a three-week event for horror fans. The first of the three, Fear Street: 1994, premiered last week and is an absolute banger of a slasher with grisly kills and characters you actually give a damn about, and next week sees the arrival of Fear Street: 1666. This week, though, is all about part two, but while Fear Street: 1978 delivers its fair share of bloody thrills the end result is a fairly generic and unsatisfying summer camp slasher.
The survivors of part one arrive at the home of C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) in desperate need of help. Berman was the only survivor of the 1978 slaughter at Camp Nightwing, and Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) need to know how she avoided the witch’s curse and stayed alive. She’s clearly still living in fear, but she agrees to tell her story in the hope it can somehow help Deena’s possessed girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch).
Summer, 1978, and the Berman sisters — Cindy (Emily Rudd) and Ziggy (Sadie Sink) — are settling in for the final time at Camp Nightwing. While Cindy aims to be a model teen in the hopes of leaving Shadyside for college, the younger and wilder Ziggy is constantly landing in trouble with both camp counselors and bullies from Sunnyvale. The teenage hijinx are interrupted, though, when the camp nurse attacks Cindy’s boyfriend Tommy (McCabe Slye)… and then Tommy goes on his own killing spree. Cindy and her friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins) race to stop the curse while Ziggy and future sheriff Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland) faces off against an ax-wielding maniac, and before the night is over one of the sisters will be dead.
Fear Street: 1978 trades its predecessor’s riffs on Scream (1996) for nods toward the campground setting of Friday the 13th (1980), and director/co-writer Leigh Janiak succeeds at capturing the atmosphere and carnage alike. It’s all a bit overly familiar, though, and while the previous film played against expectations at every turn this entry succumbs to them. The characters feel more stock, which in turn leaves viewers mostly unmoved by their fates, and rather than find emotional highs it’s a bumpy road filled with exposition and backstory.
The initial setup sets both Cindy and Ziggy on their own paths, and after putting the two at odds earlier their separation leaves little opportunity for a meaningful reconciliation. That’s par for the course in a script (by Zak Olkewicz and Janiak) that also refuses to offer anything resembling catharsis or fun in its kills when it comes to the camp’s bullies. The conceit that Shadyside is cursed while Sunnyvale isn’t is admittedly part of the tale, but the end result translates (somehow) to only Shadysiders getting killed — meaning none of the many, many bullies bite it. For a film that name drops Stephen King’s Carrie that’s just unforgivable.
The kills do deliver the bloody goods, though, and while none compare to the deli counter murder in the previous film, Fear Street: 1978 sees some mean-spirited ax hits brought to life via both practical effects and CG. Some kids are among the slaughtered (hooray!), but Janiak pulls her punches by having them happen off screen and never shown after the fact. Worse, and this pairs with the point above, in addition to being Shadysiders, the kids who are killed are also the only marginalized characters in the film — a plus-sized boy, a Black boy, and Asian girl — while all of the main players are thin, white, and conventionally attractive. To be fair, it’s aping early 80s campground slashers, but after seeing how well the first film mixes things up it’s something of a disappointment.
While these issues and others — stop leaving the damn ax behind! half of what Berman recounts is stuff that she had no way of knowing! — dampen the experience in notable ways, Fear Street: 1978 still finds its way towards delivering some thrills and minor tension en route to its inevitable conclusion. An oddly incompetent attempt at a dramatic reveal aside, the third act brings both the action and story to a head in setting up the third and final installment. Similarly, while the characters may not land as strongly this time around the performances are still enjoyable. Sink, in particular, stands out as a spunky, no-bullshit teen showing that her memorable turn in Stranger Things (2017-2021) was no one-off.
Fear Street: 1978 can’t live up to the highs of part one, but on its own merits it’s a competent homage to the genre’s heyday through the lens of Stine’s best-selling YA series. Bloody kills, an evolving mythology, and the promise of an end to a centuries-old curse are sometimes enough.