When news of yet another proposed reboot of the Friday the 13th franchise was announced in 2018, I jokingly wondered how the powers at be were going to make the entry woke. How could anyone take a series that has reveled in nihilism while effectively arguing for the inherent entertainment in seeing anonymous teen characters get hacked to bits, and translate it to work in a modern context for an audience that demands a more sensitive and compassionate approach? By exploring Halloween Final Girl Laurie Strode’s decades-long trauma, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride did so for that franchise and in the process made piles of money. But Friday the 13th has always been dumber and meaner, and at any rate, the brazen misanthropy that characterized a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s horror just wouldn’t fly today, not at least without the veneer of social consciousness. Whether out of the goodness of one’s heart or pure market-driven cynicism, the contemporary trash monger needs to give audiences an excuse for indulging in cinematic junk food.
Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street Part Two: 1978 has it all figured out. An equally enjoyable followup to the Netflix franchise’s Part One: 1994, the sequel is a spiritual continuation of the Friday the 13th franchise, it’s just that the names have been changed. Instead of Camp Crystal Lake, Fear Street’s is Camp Nightwing, and instead of an axe-wielding murderer named Jason Voorhees, Nightwing’s resident terrorist is Tommy, an eventually masked, possessed counselor (in Part One, he was referred to as the Camp Nightwing Killer). Fear Street Part Two: 1978, which Janiak adapted from R.L. Stine’s YA book franchise alongside co-writer Phil Graziadei, is more exacting than your average Friday movie. Whereas that franchise just sort of left Jason’s zombie status unexplained and inscrutable, Part Two: 1978 details the legend through which Tommy was possessed: A witch’s curse that affects many residents of the Fear Street setting of the depressed Shadyside, in a rather pronounced metaphor for class in America. In some ways, Part Two: 1978 manages to be more brutal than Friday ever did, as well: Generally the Friday the 13th movies were set at camp in the days before any of the campers arrived, so it was just counselors getting hacked up. Not so here—Tommy goes after and in fact kills children.
And yet Fear Street Part Two: 1978 manages to be more sensitive than anything in the Friday the 13th series. Through its direct engagement with the Final Girl archetype (as coined by Carol J. Clover), Part Two: 1978 finds its soul. Part Two: 1978’s ostensible Final Girl, counselor Cindy (Emily Rudd), inhabits most of the goody-goody attributes of classic Final Girls, as detailed by Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chain Saws:
The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine—not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects, not to speak of the killer himself. Lest we miss the point, it is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Will, Joey, Max.
Cindy is the type of character so straight-laced that her cursing takes her peers aback. She’s a celibate teetotaler, but her virtue isn’t presented as some sort of magical endowment. Just as Sidney in Scream refused sex for reasons tied directly to her past (in Sidney’s case, her dead mother’s promiscuous reputation), Cindy has a specific motivation for projecting such a squeaky clean identity. As she tells a former friend, Alice (Ryan Simpkins) with whom she emotionally reconnects late in the movie:
I knew then I wasn’t different from the other Shadysiders. I was cursed. I told myself that if I was perfect, if I did everything right, I could beat it. I snitched on you, I got new friends, I… started dressing like this. I dated sweet Tommy. I avoided you, but I couldn’t avoid [her sister] Ziggy. Because she was there always reminding me of the truth. That this town, this place, was cursed. And so were we. She was right all this time.
Clover argued that through the Final Girl’s boyishness, horror’s male-skewing audience ultimately identifies with the Final Girl. Fear Street Part Two’s avoidance in making such concessions is one of a few ways that it twists the archetype. Cindy’s resolution is dependent not just on her friendship with Alice, but also by repairing her relationship with her sister Ziggy (Sadie Sink). Instead of transforming into a male stand-in, Cindy’s femininity is, in fact, reaffirmed by female friendship and sisterhood.
Fear Street Part Two is intent on reshaping what we think we know about horror. The camp action opens with Ziggy tearing through the woods, only to reveal that who’s following her is not an axe-wielding murderer (he comes later), but a group of bullies, cleverly integrating the quotidian horrors of growing up with the extraordinary types you see in horror flicks. This kind of convention play, without explicitly telegraphing its every move a la Scream, is what the Fear Street series does so well. It has enough faith in its audience to pick up on its genre manipulation, but also works straightforwardly for those who aren’t coming from a particularly studied perspective. This isn’t rocket science or Bergman. There aren’t new innovations to enthrall, and a different genre might expose these characters as thin, but they work perfectly in the Fear Street context, which considers perfecting to be the greatest act of homage.