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Fear Street, Netflix and the nostalgia horror factory

Recreating the 80s and 90s in their originals, the streaming platform is hopeful audiences would lap them up for the familiar comfort they offer

Prahlad Srihari
Jul 13, 2021
 
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Strange(r) things are afoot in Fear Street’s small-town Americana. The town’s called Shadyside for crying out loud. Its tourism slogan could very well have been “Enter at your own risk.” The Netflix horror event is split into three parts spread across three time periods: 1994, 1978 and 1666. A witch’s curse weaves them all together.

Trying to break it is a Scooby gang of misfits in Part One: 1994. Leigh Janiak’s film, based on the books of RL Stine, wears the ’90s like a badge of honour. Protagonist Deena (Kiana Madeira) gets her grunge on with oversized flannels and combat boots. Geeks geek out in AOL chat rooms. Teens make each other personalised mixtapes. At a certain point, the movie itself begins to feel like a ’90s mixtape trapped in a slasher, as Janiak loads one needle drop after the other. The choices are par for the course, from Nine Inch Nails’ Closer to Radiohead’s Creep.

There is so much comfort in this familiarity. In these trying times, nostalgia holds a restorative power, and Netflix knows how to capitalise on it. The madeleine is surely delicious in small servings. Binge them however at your own peril. A perfect storm of cultural ephemera and Easter eggs submerges the viewers in Fear Street. The witch has got her own nursery rhyme that will surely make Freddie Krueger jealous. She can summon a masked killer, who has a tendency to appear and disappear behind bushes like a certain Michael Myers in Halloween. The film gets the ball rolling with a nod to the ’90s slasher classic Scream, by killing off its most popular star Maya Hawke like Wes Craven did with Drew Barrymore. Janiak then follows it up with a misdirection of her own by unmasking the killer.

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Many of the characters in the movie are pop-culture literate and familiar with horror tropes much like their counterparts in Scream. The subtext (being straitjacketed by expectations and conventions), and the text (trying to break the chain of history repeating itself) come together nicely enough. The teens in Part 1 come close to realising their goal, but not quite. Part 2 whisks us off to a 1970s summer camp set to become the scene of slaughter at the hands of a masked axe murderer. Sure seems like Friday the 13th all over again.

Stine’s books were a childhood staple, a horror rite of passage. When the Scholastic Book Fair would set up shop at schools in India, convincing mums to buy us that first Goosebumps sure wasn’t easy with a gnarly monster peeking out of the cover. The first taste, however, was enough to trigger a passion for spookier things. Progressing from Stine to Stephen King to Clive Barker, we were just addicts looking for our next fix. Huddled under the covers with a flashlight, a generation of horror movie fans grew up reading these stories in the ’80s and ’90s. Some of them are now filmmakers adapting those very stories for the screen. Like Janiak and her husband Ross Duffer, who is one-half of the twin brothers behind Stranger Things.

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COVID and the resulting social isolation have rendered nostalgia a pandemic in itself. It’s a feeling that always escalates in times of widespread upheaval. With the pandemic turning our lives as we knew it upside down, yearning to sustain continuity with the past eases our distress about an uncertain present and future. The collective retromania is built on this historicity of emotions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a coping mechanism has been to relive our pre-pandemic lives, rummaging through old photos and rewatching movies watched during one’s formative years.

Rewatching slasher movies, for instance, lets us experience nightmarish scenarios in the controlled conditions of our living rooms. Even in the bloody chaos in these movies, there is some order. Even if these teens are getting eliminated in the most creatively gruesome ways, the movies afford a window into how we can ourselves overcome existential threats and the accompanying trauma. So, there’s some catharsis too. Horror movies are, after all, a kind of exposure therapy, forcing us to face our anxieties head-on. Our lives outside the screen right now have none of that movie predictability. The narrative thread isn’t clear. It untangles in sudden and unexpected waves. The runtime is seemingly endless.

Nostalgia transfigures time into a sense of space. Slashers were what we sneakily watched as kids when our parents weren’t home. If they were, they would instantly reach for the remote. Films like Fear Street are thus filled to the brim with throwbacks because they are loving odes to the filmmakers’ own childhoods, honouring their roots if you will. Back in the day, geek culture was still fringe. Now in its mainstreaming, the movies are wish fulfilment fantasies where the filmmakers get to break the genre’s hegemonic mould.

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If Fear Street functions as fan service for the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s kids in the audience, it functions as a gateway slasher for the subsequent generations. For kids from the 2000s and 2010s, the nostalgia is one without having lived through the period and no collective historical memory. It’s what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai rightly called “armchair nostalgia.”

Though Netflix became the chief peddlers once they started producing “Originals,” nostalgia was already seeing a resurgence at the start of 2010s. The Artist, Hugo and Midnight in Paris were all wistful love letters, and went on to pick up 25 Oscar nominations between them. In response, Dominic Basulto reminded Hollywood in a Washington Post column, “nostalgia is not a business model.” Little did he know it would soon take hold of the industry.

At the centre of the nostalgia wave — and the genre films which ended up riding it — was JJ Abrams, who also crafted a love letter of his own with Super 8. A gang of small-town misfits are making a movie when a train derailment ends up freeing a captive alien. The film harnessed that same sense of awe and curiosity you found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and The Goonies. Similar Spielbergian flourishes were peppered across the series-length form of Stranger Things by ’80s-born Duffer brothers.

Heartened by Super 8’s success, Abrams turned nostalgia into a lucrative business model, rebooting Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Netflix jumped on the bandwagon, tapping into the bottomless pit to create originals and reboot existing IP. Brands too exploited the fanfare to commodify nostalgia. Stranger Things helped New Coke make a comeback. Nostalgia isn’t just being mined anymore. We have reached fracking levels.

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That’s the flipside. Retreating to the past has resulted in a real paucity of imagination. Piggybacking on the success of past works has become a convenient shortcut to making films and shows, rather than invest in the talents of new storytellers. Nostalgia also reimagines an idealised past, which is often grounded in delusion. Make America Great Again is a great example of it.

The rose-coloured glasses obscure the ways in which the depiction of certain marginalised groups in slasher movies was anything but rosy. As Marcel Proust wrote, “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Fear Street’s Deena and Sam (Olivia Welch), being a queer couple, would not have made it past the first act in a typical slasher. Nor would the nerdy Black kid Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr). The genre can be notoriously regressive, punishing horny babysitters and rewarding virginal do-gooders. By centring the story on the kind of archetypes who would have been traditionally reduced to sacrificial minorities, Janiak offers a revisionist take on the genre. Deena, Sam and Josh’s stories reclaim the era for teens like them who lived through it.

Casting aside, there is little truly subversive about Fear Street. In It Follows, for example, David Robert Mitchell used the instructive metaphor of coming-of-age anxiety from its slasher ancestors to serve a wholly transformative work. The horror fed on the slowly encroaching existential dread about adulthood. Rather than simply serve nostalgia bait that conforms to fan expectations, Fede Álvarez remade Evil Dead in a way that lets the past die for something new to be born. As a recovering junkie vulnerable to demonic possession (here a metaphor for the horrors of addiction), Jane Levy played an effective hatchet woman so to speak. Ti West anchored The House of the Devil in the Satanic Panic period without undervaluing its own scope and originality. Though you know exactly how the movie is going to pan out for its babysitting protagonist, the chills lie in its simmering tension.

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All three films retain a residue of enigma which leaves you thinking about them long after the credits roll. Fear Street can’t quite justify its existence by a similar measure. An adaptation from page to screen can only be deemed a success if it turns into a renewed source of our nightmares, which Fear Street is not. The line between pastiche and homage blurred, it is an algorithmic construction truly meant for Netflix.

The horror movie that is the ongoing pandemic too will end one day. After all, when we look to the past, we are looking for reassurance that things will be okay in the future too. Come the post-pandemic era, filmmakers will inevitably look back to this period for inspiration. The feeling might not be one of nostalgia. But the present will no doubt be nightmare fuel for a whole new subgenre of horror films in the future.

About The Author: Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bangalore. His work has appeared on Firstpost, Little White Lies, Quint and Open Magazine.

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