Director: Leigh Janiak
Stars: Kiana Madeira, Elizabeth Scopel, Darrell Britt-Gibson
The latest in the unending is-it-a-movie-is-it-TV discourse, Netflix’s time travelling teen horror trilogy/mini-series hops further back than before as it reaches its final frontier – or should that be frontier finale? Largely reusing its extant cast, Fear Street Part Three: 1666 takes us back to the earliest days of Sunnyvale and Shadyside, revealing the origin story of accursed ‘witch’ Sarah Fier (Kiana Madeira). With quasi-Irish accents laid on thick, the young actors put their all into a piece that once again shifts reference points.
These R.L. Stine adaptations have proven a fertile ground for Janiak to nod toward his genre favourites, and 1666 is no exception. Chiefly – and unsurprisingly – Leigh Janiak’s third tips its hat to Robert Eggers’ austere masterpiece The Witch, as well as a number of campier touchstones from the past, particularly from the Hammer stable. Due to its setting, this one also largely forgoes the heavy-handed jukeboxing of the previous installments.
Sarah walks herself deep into trouble when she and her friend Hannah Miller (Olivia Scott Welch) discover a book of incantations deep in the woods that lie beyond their settlement. Following an evening’s revelry with a crop of psychogenic berries, Sarah grows increasingly fearful that the ‘wickedness’ between them – a mutual sexual attraction – is blighting the land. Apples are rotten, water is poisoned. And village idiot ‘Mad’ Thomas (McCabe Slye) seems to see right into Sarah’s guilt and paranoia.
The burgeoning lesbian romance established between Deena (Madeira) and Samantha (Welch) in the ‘present’ of 1994 is conjured more explicitly here between Sarah and Hannah. In part this feels like a nod to Hammer’s late ’60s/early ’70s gothic sexploitation phase (see the titillating likes of The Vampire Lovers particularly) when the studio was losing viewers and aping hip trends from Europe. Janiak, thankfully, isn’t nearly so leering, and instead uses this aspect to further his plot.
Janiak conveys the climate of religious fervor, fear-mongering and intolerance in which these characters are confined. History is rife with examples of the frightened patriarchy demonising women, finding spurious reasons to control and to subjugate. The literal witch hunts of America’s formative days offer prime real estate for manifesting his rural horrors. 1666 uses the ills of the past to reflect and warn of the inadequacies of the present (be that 1994 or today). It’s a bloody and melodramatic affair, brimming with barely-contained hysteria.
Things escalate quickly, and Janiak skips the slow-burn unease favoured by Eggers with The Witch or even Ari Aster’s Midsommar (with which 1666 occasionally seems enamoured). Instead the more impatient trends of multiplex horror assert themselves. Cameras leering toward grim make-up effects; bombastic stings on the soundtrack. In order to cater for it’s perceived teen audience, 1666 bolts along in an effort to keep kids from reaching for their phones, rather than trust in the power of sustained dread.
Still, this entire trilogy feels designed as a primer to encourage new audiences to explore different areas of a genre that continues to sprawl outward in all directions. If 1666 leads its viewers to deeper, darker examples, that’s all to the good.
Speaking of ‘darker’, this is certainly the murkiest of Janiak’s triptych. This lends the film a certain period authenticity, but take this as a warning not to attempt a casual watch in the middle of the day, not unless you’ve got some serious light-cancelling curtains. I had a better chance making out what was happening in that notorious onslaught on Winterfell in the last season of Game of Thrones.
Forgivable accents aside (it’s the David Boreanaz school of Irish), every member of the cast seems fully committed to Janiak’s 17th century scare factory. This sense of commitment from the ensemble – echoed in Marco Beltrami’s rousing score – works wonders for the piece, especially in the mid-section when Sarah’s journey starts connecting dots from the previous movies.
Of course, its hastiness makes sense when you look at the bigger picture. Not only does Janiak have to tell this tale, but he also needs to leave time to bring a satisfying conclusion to the cliffhanger that has been haunting this trilogy since the end of film one. If that means 1666 feels like a beast with two masters, it also suggests that this third film will work best when viewed in a marathon of all three; a six-hour binge that Netflix can readily accommodate.
Coming back to it’s present, Fear Street reasserts its earliest concerns of economic disparity. It all works rather well, in the end, even if the finale owes a significant debt to Stephen King’s IT. Janiak certainly sticks his landing far better than Muschietti did. Against the odds (when was the last satisfying Netflix Original?), this YA horror series wins out after all.