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‘Fear Street’ and the Revolution of the Rapid-Release Film Trilogy

The circumstances around Netflix’s series of horror movies are unique, but the trilogy may be a blueprint for the streamer in the future

Netflix/Ringer illustration

While Netflix remains a major player in the ongoing Streaming Wars, the company has never been content to just compete against rival streamers, cable, and broadcast networks: It wants a foothold in Hollywood, too. Yet from the Cannes Film Festival to living legends like Steven Spielberg, Netflix’s moviemaking ambitions have been met with industry resistance, largely in an effort to preserve the traditional theatrical experience. Despite that pushback—felt most pointedly in the lack of a Best Picture Oscar—the streamer has held its own, having financed the passion projects of celebrated auteurs (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma) and kick-started potential franchises (The Old Guard, Army of the Dead). Even Amblin Partners, the studio founded by Spielberg, now has a partnership in place to produce movies for Netflix.

Given how much programming Netflix churns out every year, it’d be too simplistic to label the streamer as wholly good or bad for the film industry. (I will always go to bat for theaters, but if none of the major studios were going to fund Scorsese’s late-career gangster opus, at least Netflix footed the bill?) But the streamer’s biggest drawback—that, with rare exceptions, its original projects are watchable only from a living room sofa—can also be used to its advantage. A handful of interactive series have hit the platform, offering a glimpse into an eerie, Black Mirror–esque future of entertainment consumption—naturally, one of the choose-your-own-adventure narratives was, in fact, a Black Mirror episode. But while those programs still have some kinks to work out, Netflix’s Fear Street has proved to be a much more successful and deceptively simple type of experimentation: the instant gratification of watching an entire horror trilogy in the span of a few weeks.

Loosely based on R.L. Stine’s book series of the same name, Fear Street was originally being developed at 20th Century Fox in 2015, which intended to release the three movies across three months—essentially, a more accelerated version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy shooting back-to-back-to-back with three consecutive December release dates. But by the time Fear Street went into production in March 2019, 20th Century Fox’s long-gestating merger with Disney finally became official, leaving the fate of the R-rated homage to slasher films uncertain. (It goes without saying, but Mouse House isn’t exactly known for its horror movies; just ask The Empty Man.) In the end, Netflix swooped in to acquire Fear Street as part of a broader first-look deal with its production company, Chernin Entertainment. And for the past three weeks, the streamer has dropped installments every Friday.

That context is important, if only because Fear Street feels like such a perfect fit for Netflix that it might come as a surprise that the movies weren’t made in-house. The trilogy is set in the fictional town of Shadyside, where a history of brutal and spontaneous murders stands in stark contrast to the neighboring Sunnyvale, which is as prosperous as it sounds. Shadyside’s woes go back to the 17th century, when a woman named Sarah Fier was accused of witchcraft and hanged—but not before she supposedly cursed the land. The first Fear Street takes place in 1994, following a group of Shadyside teens who get roped into the witch’s curse; its sequels, mostly set in 1978 and 1666, revisit an earlier massacre at a summer camp and Sarah Fier’s origins, respectively.

Just as Stranger Things leans into the nostalgia of ’80s classics like E.T. and The Goonies, Fear Street gleefully embraces its slasher movie influences. Fear Street: 1994 most explicitly nods to Scream, all the way down to an opening sequence in which one of the most famous actresses in the ensemble, who also happens to be a descendant of Hollywood royalty, is stabbed to death by a person in a mask. Meanwhile, the “Camp Nightwing Killer” in Fear Street: 1978 owes a debt to Jason Voorhees—though instead of using a machete, the guy settles for an ax. The slasher references in Fear Street are about as subtle as its era-appropriate needle drops, but like Stranger Things, that’s the point. (In an odd twist of fate, filmmaker Leigh Janiak, who directed the trilogy, is married to Stranger Things cocreator Ross Duffer.)

Even if the Fear Street movies didn’t also borrow a couple of the show’s actors in Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink, comparisons to Stranger Things’ nostalgia-baiting seem inevitable. But to Fear Street’s credit, the films have a nastier streak more befitting of their R-rated influences than anything from the Upside Down. The trilogy doesn’t skimp on the gore, highlighted by a fiendishly creative kill involving an industrial bread slicer—a gross-out moment that already belongs in the slasher hall of fame—and a summer camp bloodbath that goes farther than the Friday the 13th franchise ever did. Most refreshingly, Fear Street adds new wrinkles to the slasher movie formula by centering its story on a queer romance, while the most virtuous character in Fear Street: 1978—someone who is the most obvious through line in horror’s storied history of Final Girls—tragically meets their demise.

And as far as matching up to Stranger Things’ pedigree, the early returns for Fear Street are promising: Reviews for the first two entries have been favorable, and as of this writing, the first two films remain in Netflix’s Top 10 most-viewed programs in the United States. (Fear Street: 1666 arrives on Friday.) But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Fear Street isn’t necessarily defined by metrics, but the sense that there’s been sustained interest in the trilogy—something the streamer has taken advantage of by, for instance, breaking down the infamous bread slicer death scene with scientists. Even Netflix’s buzziest original programs—Stranger Things, Ozark, The Witcher, and so on—have a comparatively short shelf life in the nebulous online discourse, arguably the biggest downside of its preferred binge release model.

While other streamers like Amazon (the latest seasons of The Boys and The Expanse) and Disney+ (The Mandalorian, the MCU shows) have used the weekly release model to great effect, Netflix has adopted it sparingly prior to Fear Street. The circumstances here are a little different—after initially being intended for a unique three-month theatrical rollout, Fear Street’s release on Netflix essentially amounts to a three-week streaming event for a trio of feature-length films made on a major studio budget. But while Fear Street splits the difference between Netflix’s Hollywood aspirations and its continued streaming dominance, the end result is the same. The movies have drummed up interest in the lead-up to Fear Street: 1666, which (minor spoiler alert) should satisfy viewers by answering all the lingering questions about Sarah Fier and Shadyside’s, well, shady history.

Netflix plans to capitalize on Fear Street’s appeal by creating more teen-oriented horror movies, much in the same way that the company revived romantic comedies and brought cheesy Hallmark-esque holiday specials to streaming. (Janiak, for her part, is open to making more Fear Street films.) But it remains to be seen whether the streamer will take the right lessons from the trilogy’s success. It’d be tricky to totally replicate Fear Street—it’s not often that a production company goes all in on shooting three movies at once because of the inherent risk involved. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to embrace the philosophy of releasing a project in weekly morsels, and letting hype take care of the rest.