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Netflix bets on bingeable horror with Fear Street trilogy

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Part one is out now

fear street Photo: Netflix

Something special happens when you marathon horror movies. On their own, slasher flicks like Friday the 13th or Halloween can seem like nothing more than bloody fun. But when you watch a bunch in a row, the connections and mythologies become much more apparent; Jason Voorhees shifts from a murderous demon into something more sympathetic. Some of them even feature “previously on” segments to make these links more obvious.

These movies may not have been created with binge-watching in mind, but in many ways they benefit from it, which is part of what makes the Fear Street trilogy on Netflix so interesting: it was designed to be binged. All three entries, starting with part one on July 2nd, will be released over the course of three weeks. It’s a unique experiment with changing viewing habits, and one that feels uniquely suited to horror as a genre.

The films are based loosely on the R.L. Stine books of the same name, following a town called Shadyside that’s been haunted for centuries, cursed by periodic — and grisly — killings that have earned it a reputation as the murder capital of the US. The movies track this history across three time periods. Part one is set in 1994, followed by 1978 and 1666. Though they tell individual stories, they’re all tightly connected to the Shadyside mythos. You’ll definitely want to watch them in order.

Fear Street

The 1994 movie starts, as many horror movies do, with a young woman being killed. From there, you learn that the town of Shadyside has long been haunted by a dead witch named Sarah Fier (pronounced “Fear,” naturally) and that, every so often, someone goes on a murderous rampage, apparently due to her influence. The vibe is sort of like Scream crossed with the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, as a group of misfit high school students work together to learn about Fier and end the killings once and for all. (You can get a sense of the first movie by watching the first five minutes here.)

It has all of the hallmarks of a slasher movie — inventively grisly deaths, single-minded killers that never give up, gratuitous sex scenes — but it’s buoyed by the hint of a deeper mystery. I won’t spoil anything, but the way the first movie connects to the sequels makes them ideal for close viewing. When I finished part one, I immediately had to know what happened next. And even though each one has a very different vibe — part two takes place at a summer retreat reminiscent of Friday the 13th’s Camp Crystal Lake, while the third goes back a few centuries to the early days of Shadyside — they all feel part of the same whole.

According to Netflix, the three movies were filmed over a 108-day period in Atlanta, which was preceded by a month-long writers’ room to nail down the story and the way it would connect each film. “Everyone involved in production knew this was crazy,” Leigh Janiak, who directed all three movies, explained in a statement. “I didn’t realize how crazy and weird it was until I got into post-production and was like, these are three completely different movies.”

fear street

Ever since Netflix started to dabble in original programming, there have been countless debates about how and when episodic stories should be released on streaming services. Netflix typically drops new seasons of its big shows, like The Witcher or Stranger Things, all at once, so viewers can watch at their leisure. Disney, meanwhile, tends to go the weekly route, so you have to wait to see what happens next on Loki or The Mandalorian. (Disney even recently shifted to experimenting with Wednesday releases instead of Friday.) There are benefits to both; binging gives fans what they want immediately, while weekly releases help a show stay in the spotlight for longer.

Up until now, though, that conversation has never really involved movies. Fear Street represents something new in that regard, and it’s the kind of experiment that could only really work in the world of streaming. What might otherwise be a gone-and-forgotten horror flick is now more of a summer movie event. After part one debuts on July 2nd, two and three will follow on the 9th and 16th. The releases are close enough that you won’t forget what happens in between, but also spread out so that the trilogy has its own prolonged moment.

As with all experiments, it’s unclear if this is a one-off event or the beginnings of a trend. It’s unlikely that Marvel will do something similar for its next superhero epic; blockbuster movies are challenging and expensive enough to make already, without having to worry about doing several at once. But for lower-stakes genre films, such as horror, it makes a lot more sense. And, at least in the case of Fear Street, the release strategy actually improves the viewing experience — a new technique to breathe life into an old genre.