The ax-murderer, for instance, evokes Jason Voorhees, and will presumably show up in the next installment, 1978, which will take place in a summer camp that was demolished and replaced with the mall. Where Get Out or The Babadook used horror to explore the razor-toothed hunger of white liberal (supposed) allies and the terror of feeling unable to trust your own mental state, plenty of other titles end up just pinning themselves to larger concepts in ways that range from clumsily obvious to grossly cynical. At no point during the movie, which is the first installment of a trilogy that Netflix will be releasing (and I’ll be reviewing) over three weeks, is there a suggestion that the curse is a metaphor for repressed sexuality, or industrialization, or anything else. But 1994 feels untethered from these obligations. Its characters — band goth Deena (Kiana Madeira); her chatroom-loving younger brother, Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.); her drug-dealing pals Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger); and her ex, Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) — aren’t flat in terms of demographics or personal histories, but their differences exist within the context of the movie without being the triple-underscored point. Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is a nasty, effective slasher about a group of teenagers who come into contact with the curse that’s been plaguing their town of Shadyside, Ohio, for three centuries — one that has something to do with an accused witch, Sarah Fier, who was hanged in a settlement in the area back in 1666. Sometimes a curse is just a curse, and this one has periodically sparked murder sprees in Shadyside, which is tattered and struggling, while the nearby community of Sunnyvale thrives. The connections between the five are why they find themselves doing battle with a force that resurrects its past victims, among them an ax-wielding killer, a teen queen with a razor blade, and a stabby type in a skull mask. Give me a film that’s as haunted by the traumas of its characters as by its killers, ghosts, and ghouls, and I’m already halfway onboard. The latter is right out of Scream, as is the film’s first sequence, in which a disaffected B. But Janiak’s film is saltier, soapier, and more pragmatic — it has sequels to dole out, after all. While the film has obvious touchstones, the influence it quietly but most steadily brings to mind is the terrific (and admittedly very arthouse!) It Follows. I like my dread slow-dripped and my scares born more out of cunning camera angles and disturbing imagery than shock-y jumps. Deena’s pining for and rage at Sam, who moved to Sunnyvale after her parents’ divorce and started dating a football player after Deena dumped her, is not the reason the curse is called down on these kids, but it is the film’s moody emotional core. The trouble with the “actually, it’s about trauma” or “actually, it’s about racism” approach is not the ambition to deal with these themes onscreen, but that so many recent movies (and TV shows) just stop after making the connection because they don’t actually have anything to say about these concepts. More Movie Reviews

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Tags: Those credits handily lay out a timeline of divided communities and occasional bloodletting that harkens as much back to horror’s history as it does the fictional twin towns. On Netflix, the content of 1994, which includes some gnarly killing — Heather’s is on the milder end, and she doesn’t go easily — feels less remarkable than the quality of its filmmaking. And yet, I’ll confess to feeling a sense of relief on realizing that the kickoff Fear Street film wasn’t about more than it says on the package. Stine novels aimed at an older (which is to say, teenage) audience, and were originally slated to be part of an R-rated theatrical gamble at 20th Century Fox. Like David Robert Mitchell’s film, 1994 takes place in a suburban world that’s familiar and also borderline dreamlike — an inciting hazing incident starts with headlights zooming in from afar in the night, as seen through the windows at the back of a school bus. Photo: Netflix

I’m pathetically in the bag for arthouse horror. The kickoff installment of the R.L Stine–based trilogy harkens back to some classic horror tropes without being entirely mired in nostalgia. But 1994 isn’t a pastiche, and it tries to evoke the actual decade in which it’s set and not an air-quotes version, with some nicely chosen needle drops (like the Cowboy Junkies’ inescapable-at-the-time cover of “Sweet Jane”) and restrained costuming choices. Dalton employee named Heather (Maya Hawke) meets her gruesome end when closing up after hours in the Shadyside Mall. The trio of films, which were all directed and co-written by Honeymoon’s Leigh Janiak, are based on a series of R.L. Horror is hardly the only film genre that’s fallen under self-exerted pressure to seek out greater, or at least more explicit, relevance, but it’s the one in which the gap between theme and execution can feel most glaring. In 1994, it’s not sex that invites the monsters in, but making contact with evidence of the town’s original sin, one that we’ll presumably eventually witness. That opening scene is shot in a retail expanse that’s as pretty as it is spooky — glowing in muted neon lighting, Heather goes down in a slow motion that lends a little lyricism to her pre-credits death. And like It Follows, the curse in 1994 involves inexorable pursuers that the gang tries to fight off with MacGyver’d solutions, with parents remaining indifferently offscreen and most other adults revealed to be oblivious or skeptical. That may speak to a grander theme in its own right, but it’s not one any American horror film ever has to overreach for, not when its been there in the background all along.