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Fear Street: 1666 review: R.L. Stein’s horror trilogy sticks the landing

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Netflix’s trilogy-capper Fear Street Part Three: 1666 opens with an abrupt dissociative vision. Deena Johnson (Kiana Madeira), the heroine of Fear Street: 1994, has encountered the exhumed body of supposed witch Sarah Fier, and wakes up as Sarah herself. Across the first two installments in Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, the violent legacy of Sarah’s death has been framed as the source of the innumerable misfortunes and murders that have plagued the town of Shadyside for centuries. She’s been positioned as a vengeful specter, twisting otherwise benign citizens into homicidal serial killers with a preternatural resistance to being killed. But Fear Street: 1666 reveals that Sarah is neither the villain history has made her out to be, nor the cause of the so-called “witch’s curse.” Contrary to everything the story suggested, Sarah Fier is a victim of these horrors herself, as much as either Deena or her ex-girlfriend Sam, if not more so.

The third and final film in Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street series, adapted from R.L. Stine’s books, skews the farthest from the established genre conventions of the former two installments. The excessive period-specific needle drops are replaced by a bucolic violin score. (At least at first.) Fear Street: 1994 and Fear Street: 1978 relied heavily on tropes and iconography borrowed from the popular horror films and franchises of their respective eras, from Scream to Friday the 13th and Halloween. Fear Street: 1666 has no such referents, but its visual aesthetic and tone do match up with other period horror films, like Gareth Evans’ Apostle or Robert Eggers’ The Witch. The town of Union, the 17th-century predecessor to modern-day Shadyside, is a picture of communal bliss. Farmers tend to their flocks, children frolic and recite nursery rhymes, and teenagers finish their chores before running off to indulge in the fruits of the land and their youth. At first glance, it’s not clear that this place would be the origin site of a centuries-long curse and a legacy of inexplicable violence. But every horror story begins somewhere.

Photo: Netflix

Fear Street: 1666 pulls back the veils of time in order to exhume the long-buried truth behind the witch’s curse and the root of Shadyside’s mutual animosity with its sister city Sunnyvale. Sarah, in stark contrast to the malevolent figure the series has made her out to be so far, was not unlike Deena once: a kind-hearted, mild-mannered teenager whose rebellious temperament and repressed sexual identity put her at odds with the prevailing social sentiments of her time. Sarah harbors a love for her childhood friend Hannah Miller (Olivia Scott Welch), parallel to Deena’s relationship with her ex-girlfriend Sam, and when accusations of carnal sin and witchcraft begin to brew in Union following a string of inexplicable and horrifying omens, the closeness between the two naturally makes them targets for suspicion and resentment.

The horror of Fear Street: 1666 isn’t rooted in any one homicidal killer, though Pastor Cyrus Miller (Michael Chandler) certainly fulfills that role in an especially chilling scene. Mostly, though, it finds its tragic terror in the way the most vulnerable individuals — queer women, in this case — are transformed into pariahs by communities who grasp for reassurances in times of crisis by ostracizing those who can’t fight back. The scene of Sarah’s execution by hanging is heart-wrenching, made all the more so by the revelation of who actually originated the so-called witch’s curse — someone else whose legacy looms like a shadow over Shadyside and Sunnyvale, in the form of their descendants.

FRED HECHINGER as ISAAC and JULIA REHWALD as LIZZIE in Fear Street Part Three: 1666

Photo: Netflix

Fear Street: 1666 is a campy, grisly offering, and it’s also a satisfying conclusion to Deena and Sam’s arc, even though it alludes to the possibility of future explorations of Shadyside and Sunnyvale. (There are more than a hundred Fear Street books, many by Stine, and many more ghostwritten, so there’s plenty of material to mine.) On a whole, the Fear Street trilogy may not seem like anything more than an exercise in serialized filmmaking, or an opportunity to indulge in a nostalgia based riff through established horror tropes.

Beneath the surface, however, the commonalities between the three films offer candid commentary on the arbitrariness of class, the adolescent fear of growing up and falling into the mold of a life set before you, and the importance of defiantly claiming one’s own worth and happiness in the face of uncertainty or social reprisal. These movies certainly aren’t profound, but the Fear Street trilogy is an admirable, entertaining horror series packed with enough gruesome scares, clever twists, and charming performances to compel audiences until the end.

Fear Street Part Three: 1666 is now streaming on Netflix.

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