[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Fear Street Part 1: 1994.”]
Author R.L. Stine’s long-running YA series “Fear Street” might be decidedly PG in its thrills, chills, and kills, but when it came time to transfer his creepy vision to the big screen, things took one hell of an R-rated turn. In filmmaker Leigh Janiak’s Netflix trilogy, the stakes are very real, and so too is the gore level, which unspools via a wide variety of icky, bloody, and just plain scary kills.
“Right away, I was like, these have to be R-rated slasher movies,” Janiak said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was thinking about being 10 and 11 and sneaking to the video store and renting things I wasn’t supposed to rent, like ‘Child’s Play’ and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street.’ That was an important part, always, for me.”
Janiak’s trilogy, while somewhat loosely based on Stine’s many “Fear Street” novels, still use the author’s panache for world-building to create an immersive universe for the horrors to play out within. Like Stine’s novels, the film is set in and around the fictitious town of Shadyside, Ohio, long home to lots of bad, bad things, and often compared to its much brighter, better neighbor of Sunnyvale.
And while it’s still teens who lead the films’ action through centuries of scary stories — the three films are set in 1994, 1978, and 1666 — Janiak didn’t want to lean on their youth as an excuse to not make the gory stuff really hurt. She wanted it to be as scary, horrifying, and gross as the movies of her youth, the ones she had to sneak out to get, and which a whole new generation can now stream on Netflix.
“There’s bad shit happening to these people,” she said. “I wanted to be able to hit that real evil and also keep it fun, but also not just make it feel like things are safe or, if you really like this person, they’re going to be fine. That was very much the plan from the beginning.”
The films follow Deena (Kiana Madeira), her ex-girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), and Deena’s little brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) — plus other assorted friends, foes, and unlikely allies who emerge over the course of the three films — as they attempt to unpack the mystery of cursed witch Sarah Fier, whose 17th-century misdeeds are believed to be the cause of all of Shadyside’s bad luck (and, yes, bad blood). But Fier isn’t the only (maybe) baddie stalking Shadyside, and as the films unfold, more and more potential killers emerge.
That means that more and more blood is spilled, too. Janiak admits the fast-paced schedule of shooting three films back to back to back, plus the fundamentally dark material at hand, might have made her a touch punch-drunk. The only answer: more blood!
“We shot the second movie last, and by the time I got to that movie, I was so tired. I was so tired,” she said. “Every time we had a scene with a kill or an attack, I was just like, ‘More blood, more blood, fucking let’s do this!’ There was no more negotiation, it was just like more, just do more.”
While Janiak initially worried there might be some resistance to the gore level of the films, but she kept reminding herself that her producers had her and co-writer Phil Graziadei’s scripts in hand. They knew what they were getting into, and that includes her favorite kill from the entire series, which unfolds at the end of “Fear Street Part 1: 1994.”
The film ends with a frighteningly funny and dizzyingly dark showdown in a local Shadyside grocery store, as the many evil killers brought to life by Sarah Fier’s own evil (well, maybe) descend on our plucky group of teenagers, including Deena, Sam, Josh, smarty-pants Kate (Julia Rehwald), and wise-cracking Simon (Fred Hechinger). As the teens, who have already survived quite a bit, do battle with the re-animated killers who have sliced their way through Shadyside lore, still more of them are killed.
And that includes Kate, who dies in truly shocking fashion: she gets her head put through a bread slicer. That’s Janiak in a nutshell.
“It was just so fun to shoot,” Janiak said. “We did so much research going into it, because I was getting into all of these little arguments with my art department because they were like, ‘A head wouldn’t do that,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t care. We’re making a movie. This is fun. Whatever!’ Then they bought a bread slicer and we put watermelons through it, and the first watermelon that went through just got sliced perfectly. Then they were like, ‘Well, it doesn’t have hair,’ I was like, ‘We’re doing this. We’re doing it.’ That’s my favorite for sure.”
But that particular kill, which arrives at the end of the first film, long after audiences have potentially been lulled into a sense of safety regarding some of their favorite characters, also helps highlight the unique structure of the trilogy. As Janiak notes, while Kate’s death comes in the third act of “Fear Street Part 1: 1994,” it’s really only the first act of the entire series.
“It’s shocking and sad because Kate is so likable and you’re so late in the movie and it’s just terrible for her,” Janiak added. “That was the thing, we needed to have real loss in order to keep us propelling forward.”
And, make no mistake, star Rehwald was just as pumped about the kill as Janiak. “Julia told mother that [her character] lives,” Janiak said. “And it’s all I can think about is the moment when she watches this movie being like, ‘Julia is going to be — oh. Ugh.’ I just can’t wait.”
“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” is now streaming on Netflix. “Fear Street Part 2: 1978” hits the streamer on July 9, with “Fear Street Part 3: 1666” following on July 16.