Telling a trilogy backward through time objectively shouldn’t work. At the start of “Fear Street Part 2: 1978,” the middle installment in Leigh Janiak’s trio of century-spanning films based on the R.L. Stine book series, one character makes it fairly clear who will survive the tale she’s about to unspool. There’s no in media res trickery, no story-within-a-story retconning.
Yet, there’s a confidence and a streamlined approach to “1978” that makes for a richer experience in both part and whole than its predecessor “Fear Street Part 1: 1994.” The surprise isn’t that it deviates from the groundrules set out in the film before it, or even the scores of horror films from in and around the decade in which it’s set. It’s that when “Fear Street: 1978” is given the opportunity to fulfill the promises it’s made for itself, it does so unreservedly, with a clear sense of purpose.
That’s evident as soon as the movie introduces its strongest relationship, one between two sisters destined to be central players in a bloody saga neither of them are prepared for. Ziggy (Sadie Sink) is a camper at Camp Nightwing, the summer destination where her older teen sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) is a counselor. Just trying to last the summer unscathed before any bladed weapons even pop up, Ziggy is a bit of an outcast. A power-hungry clique of entitled kids from Sunnyvale, the greater corner of Ohio’s more well-to-do half, stop just short of torturing Ziggy for sport. Meanwhile, Cindy has a brand new preppy polo shirt and a sweet, mop-topped boyfriend Tommy (McCabe Slye), seemingly set up for some of the Nightwing cachet she would automatically get if she and Ziggy weren’t residents of nearby Shadyside outside of the summer months.
Where its predecessor tweaked some of the ‘90s slasher character dynamics, “Fear Street: 1978” fills out its ensemble with some more recognizable supporting players. Cindy’s former best friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins) is the rebellious one at camp, defying all manner of rules about physical contact and illicit substances with the help of boyfriend Arnie (Sam Brooks). With his adult future clearly foreshadowed, we meet clean-cut do-gooder young Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland), who will one day take over as the sheriff investigating deaths at the mall and the hospital and the supermarket sixteen years later. And the Nightwing staff nurse (Jordana Spiro) becomes the harbinger of doom, whose warnings about her own family history become key once things turn violent.
As familiar as some of those forest-set horror archetypes can be, “Fear Street: 1978” is not content with coasting on them — any character who manages to survive more than a few scenes after they’re introduced gets a thoughtful and well-dialed performance before them. As is the emerging “Fear Street” tradition, events beyond these teens’ control quickly engulf Nightwing in a night of bloodshed. (In true genre fashion, no bit of rulebreaking goes unpunished.) Yet even amidst the coming chaos, Sink and Rudd make that complicated sister bond believable, even as they’re split apart and trying to help the people around them outlast the supernatural terrors close on their heels. Much of the rest of the ensemble only gets a tiny sliver of narrative real estate to justify their own emotional involvement in this greater story aside from staying alive. Collectively, they manage to keep a sense of the outside world and keep “1978” from becoming an insular exercise in watching each of your friends get a hatchet to the face.
While there is a certain balance of purpose and fidelity to be found in “1994,” “Fear Street: 1978” has a keener sense of motion throughout. We rarely glimpse Sarah Fier, the woman whose pagan pathway of choices is said to have generated the fatal traps we see ensnaring victims over two hundred years after her death. Yet Janiak finds a way to keep the series’ internal lore alive even when it’s not explicitly referenced. The interiors of the Nightwing buildings are covered in menacing shadow (enough that there’s no danger of feeling like Andy and Beth or Gene the cook are about to wander into any particular scene). The camera is always hovering, floating around characters who have a good chance of being dead by next sunrise, whether they’ve realized it yet or not. The jump scares are reasonably judicious, with a misdirect or two helpfully sprinkled in so that a few of them come off as legitimate shocks.
There’s nothing quite as intestine-flipping visceral here as the bread-slicer death near the end of “1994” — then again, what is? — but “1978” really benefits from a more methodical sense of fate twirling around every character’s decision. If the car accident in “1994” felt like a rotten case of bad luck, everything in “1978” seems like the fulfillment of an actual deal with the devil, one that will take far more than a quick-thinking lobster tank audible to survive. It never tips over into a self-aware sense that all of these campers and counselors somehow clock that they’re in a traditional serial killer story. With a clearer view of the danger they face, everyone’s reactions to it seem more calibrated. Those tempting fate do it with more gusto. Those understandably spooked aren’t overreacting at all. It’s the pervasive, primal air of “I cannot believe this is happening to me” dread that becomes the engine for a movie that rarely slows down to refuel.
It’s what makes some of the coincidental convergences late in the story feel like fate more than convenience. As IndieWire’s David Ehrlich has already referenced when writing about this series, the knowledge of the connections that extend in either direction through this trilogy retroactively make “1994” a stronger entry and give “1666” more potential than its mildly tongue-in-cheek title would imply. “1978” may not completely reframe the overall “Fear Street” story from curiosity to tragedy all by itself, but tracking the casual ways that past decisions and stratifications hold sway on future generations does make this a richer viewing experience. Seeing the campers at Nightwing divided by color between blue and red, some marked for an end they could never see coming, does point to an even more insidious cultural history for these towns, one that matches the mythical sway of the woman who gives her name to the series.
“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is now available to stream on Netflix. “Fear Street Part 2: 1978” will be available on Friday, July 9. “Fear Street Part 3: 1666” will be available on Friday, July 16.