Review: Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Director: Leigh Janiak

Stars: Sadie Sink, Ryan Simpkins, McCabe Slye

It’s been but a short week since the first part of Leigh Janiak’s Netflix trifecta Fear Street appeared on the service, and already much of its lore has faded from memory. Fortunately, this second entry opens with an (optional) recap. Even more promisingly, Fear Street Part Two: 1978 provides a slightly more memorable selection of scares and loving reference points.

We rejoin the gang as they search desperately for a ‘cure’ for Samantha Fraser’s (Olivia Welch) possession by the Shadyside witch. This means darkening the doorstep of one-time survivor Cindy Berman (Gillian Jacobs), who acts as storyteller for the 1978 part of this strand. And so we dovetail back to Nightwing Summer Camp in the year of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Scream, and Stranger Things alum Sadie Sink as Cindy’s little sister Ziggy.

Where 1994 bowed down to the altars of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, 1978 evokes the spirit of Sean Cunningham, Tony Maylam and Robert Hiltzik. If their names aren’t as immediately ubiquitous, the tropes they helped instill most certainly will be. We’re in the arena of horny camp counselors, woodsy paranoia and plentiful lakeside manslaughter that typified hundreds, nay thousands of drive-in visits and Friday night video rentals throughout the ’80s.

Where the last film plundered from a well that Stranger Things already tapped dry, 1978 often predates those reference points. It feels like damning-with-faint-praise, but at least this time around the thefts and homages aren’t quite so recently done-to-death. Summer camp slashers haven’t had the generous overhaul in public image that A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween have been afforded. There’s still something quite uncool about this particular subset, perhaps because they’re often far meaner, itemising the cruelties of adolescence – the bullying, the bitching, all those brutal slayings and inconvenient hormones…

Things at Nightwing are shaken up when Nurse Lane (Jordana Spiro) goes nuts and attacks one of the counselors with a butcher knife. Wheeled off to the loony bin, her assertions that the blood will flow that night leave a number of teens troubled, particularly Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye). With rumours of the witch’s curse running through camp faster than an STD, we’re in for a long night of scares and slayings.

Once again Janiak bathes her lambs in a warm glow, ensuring that his horror movie looks the part. She evokes the humidity of a sticky summer night with nostalgic gusto. As with his prior installment, 1978 feels a little unruly, pushing for a running time around half hour longer than most slasher movies, but this time is spent on character relations and story development (things that the likes of Friday the 13th rarely had time for), and the net result is a more robust offering. The music cues are still plentiful and all over the place, but the looser feel makes this seem like much less of a sticking point. 1978 also feels like it has the muzzle off compared to its predecessor, in which most of the cast were ‘safe’ for much of the picture. Here, anything goes.

At its heart, Fear Street Part Two: 1978 (and this series in general, so far) focuses on our innate need to reconcile abominable acts. We’ll turn to scapegoats like drugs or the occult to provide easy, closed-off answers for crimes that often reject comfortably packaged explanation. The film’s preoccupation with familial ties tilts toward the tougher answers; psychological traumas passed down through the generations, not through blood but through inherited behaviours, grudges and abuses. We really are our own worst enemies.

But lets not get too far ahead of ourselves. This is still popcorn teen horror as supplied by Netflix. That it comes with a hard 18 certificate speaks to Janiak’s generosity with the grue (continuing the loving legacy of those ‘video nasties’ of old), and arguably goes against purpose as entry-level horror, but the picture is better for it. If 1994 pandered to casual mainstream tastes, 1978 feels like the next step. Having indoctrinated, it urges new recruits to go deeper into those dark woods. Solidly entertaining, a little nastier and a little sexier than expected, can Part Three take us further still?

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