Netflix is taking a stab at R.L. Stine’s ‘Fear Street’ horror books for three new films
R.L. Stine has cranked out more than 150 books under his “Fear Street” banner, and these mass-appeal horror books for teens have sold more than 80 million copies. When Leigh Janiak was given the reins to bring “Fear Street” to film back in 2017, however, the path forward was dark, scary and unclear.
Janiak, who had directed one low-budget indie horror film and a few episodes of horror TV, was hired to make a series of three films that could be binged and released back-to-back. There were no other specific mandates, so she sat down with four other writers and said, “How do we make audiences feel there’s a reason for this beyond a gimmick?”
The first thing Janiak and her team did was set aside Stine’s stories to create their own. The films open with yet another murder spree in Shadyside, the wrongest side of the tracks, where the lower class live perpetually in the shadow of Sunnyvale, land of milk and honey. When the demons of the past are inadvertently dragged back to life, five teens must try to set things right before more — and more — people die.
The first two films, set in 1994 and 1978, acknowledge and sometimes subvert horror conventions, following in the footsteps of the classic slasher flicks of those eras; the third, set in 1666, is less a horror film and more a variation on Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.” Most key actors appear in at least two or even all three of the films, which Janiak filmed across 106 days.
It made for a surreal experience, Janiak says. “I’d have a conversation with actors, saying, ‘I know this is crazy, but let’s try to keep it as grounded as you can. If there was an undead killer coming after you or someone just cut off your friend’s head, what would you do?’”
The uniformly excellent cast includes names such as Gillian Jacobs, Maya Hawke and Ashley Zukerman but is led by Kiana Medeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., and Olivia Welch.
While the trilogy may not be as ambitious as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” it has far more on its mind than the average horror show. The action-packed films feature plenty of jump-scares and a healthy (but not obscene) dose of gore, along with humor and a great soundtrack but what adds weight to the narrative are the fully fleshed-out characters…at least until ax meets flesh. Their stories illuminate themes examining gender dynamics, sexual identity, class and power, and misinformation and mob violence.
Here’s a scene from “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” with Maya Hawke. (Photo: Netflix)
Here’s a scene from “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” with Benjamin Flores Jr. (Photo: Netflix)
Here’s a scene from “Fear Street Part 1: 1994.” (Photo: Netflix)
The first film debuts July 2nd, with the others to follow on succeeding Fridays. Janiak spoke by Zoom recently about how she and “Fear Street” were shaped by “Psycho,” “The Man Who Sold The World” and “The Knick.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Did you always love scary stories and movies?
Yes. My first interaction with horror was at 5th-grade slumber parties when we’d sneakily rent VHS tapes, like “Child’s Play” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” My mom said, ‘Slasher movies, blah. You’re going to watch Hitchcock.’ So for my 6th-grade birthday party, we rented “Psycho,” which was so much more [messed] up than Chucky.
I was a big fan of the Fear Street books and Christopher Pike. Then “Scream” came out when I was 16, and that was mind-blowing to me. Stephen King was another one. Fear Street books hint at things, but Stephen King is next level for what his books did to me. It’s a whole different world of uncomfortableness and fear. I re-read “It” a few years ago and I still feel uncomfortable; it’s weird and subversive but I love it.
Q. Your stories are not from Stine’s books.
There are hundreds of these books, all their own little story, with no unifying mythology. So it was about how we could preserve the spirit of the books — the fun and the crazy stuff that happens — while telling a complete story that feels like it has a driving force. We wanted you to feel that with each movie you’re learning a new piece of the puzzle, not just treading water or revisiting the story we just saw.
We kept Shadyside and the Goode and Fier families but we built a mythology from the ground up — that provided us this opportunity to make movies that are actually about something.
Q. These films feel very different than recent horror movies.
One of the reasons I was so interested in the project is that horror in the last decade has been very dark, I call it “blow your head off” films that drag you down. I didn’t want to make torture porn. These films gave me an opportunity bring a little fun back into horror movies.
For me, the excitement of setting them in the ‘90s and ‘70s was that we could nod at the beats of things from horror films of each period. There’s edges of sex in the first movie — the moment when Deena and Sam are hooking up is directly from “Scream,” but in the ‘70s film I thought, “You need a little nudity here — it’s the ’70s and it’s a whole different ballgame.”
In crafting the scares and gore I looked at movies I loved and thought, ‘How would they treat this?’
But we had to give it a reason for being, so it was not just pure nostalgia and homage. It was a balancing act looking at what traditional movies would do and letting all of our action come from our characters and thematic ideas.
So it was exciting when we cracked the idea that Shadyside and Sunnyvale would be this microcosm of systemic oppression and our killers would be representative of that. Everything trickled down from there to the idea that our characters could all be outsiders, versions of The Other. That motivated everything else. These are characters who don’t usually exist in traditional horror movies…and if they do they’re dead very quickly. When one Black actor told his mom he was cast in this, she asked, “Oh, when do you die?”
Q. Were you nervous about the shift to 1666, which is less overtly a horror film and which re-stars with a third set of characters, but this time in period costume and with accents?
It really was nerve-wracking. I think the costume department wanted to murder me. They had a lot of color and it felt like we’re going to look a Renaissance faire so I decided our palate needs to be neutral. My worst nightmare is that we end up watching a high school theater performance of ‘The Crucible.’
You watch period pieces, and they often keep you at arm’s length. I wanted this to feel very immediate, not stilted, I used handheld cameras to get the character’s point of view. I watched Terrence Malick’s “The New World” and Steven Soderbergh’s series, “The Knick,” which had camera coverage that did an incredible job of making it feel modern.
Q. Music, especially “The Man Who Sold the World,” is crucial in both the 1994 and particularly 1978 films. Was it expensive to get licensing for all those songs?
“The Man Who Sold the World” was the first song I wrote into the scripts. But as I was writing it in, I thought, ‘Nirvana and David Bowie, this is very expensive.’ I was always conscious that it was going to be a battle – but when you’re making a movie every day is a million battles – so I just put the songs in. Netflix really stepped up. I felt so lucky. There were only a couple of cues, like one Metallica song, we didn’t get, but I don’t feel bad about them. Preserving Bowie and Nirvana was the thing. Everything else was icing on the cake.
Q. Was it easier or harder shooting all three movies consecutively?
It was both easier and harder. We shot for 106 days and a lot of nights. That’s a lot, but not for three movies. It was a very high page count a day, and if you add stunts, make-up work – it’s a very quick pace. It was kind of insane. But growing with the cast was good. Although it became strange at the end – I did 1978 last because it had more of its own cast, and so it was weird to suddenly have new people to have to learn about.
Q. Women have historically had a tough time getting the director’s chair and horror is particularly male-dominated. Are things changing?
When I made my indie movie, I obviously knew it was a horror movie – it was supposed to be an intimate “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – but I also just thought, “I’m telling a love story” so I was surprised to be embraced by the horror community the way we were.
And people are excited now, “Oh, a woman that directs horror,” so it’s actually been very good for me the last few years. There’s a lot of change that still needs to happen, but Hollywood is doing it, slowly.