There are significant spoilers for Fear Street: 1978 below! For a recap/analysis of the first movie in the trilogy, click here.
Hello my fellow Fear Streeters! We’re back with an in-depth look at Fear Street: 1978, the second movie in this Netflix horror trilogy. Part two riffs on the original Friday The 13th movie with its summer camp setting, and we trade in the 90s nostalgia of the first Fear Street for late-70s nostalgia. Stylistically, it’s another winner, boasting a clear visual aesthetic and classic slasher scenarios. But 1978 lags in comparison to its lead-in, bogged down by repetitive exposition and expending too much effort cultivating an air of intrigue around what’s ultimately a pretty straightforward mythology.
The movie begins shortly after we left off in 1994. Deena and Josh break into the home of C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), which is honestly a pretty rude thing to do to someone they know is a survivor of a mass murder event, but I digress. Indeed, C. Berman’s residual trauma is on full display right away. A wall calendar marks the days since Camp Nightwing’s horrific massacre (over 5,000 at this point). She has one friend and one friend only: her dog Major Tom. And her house is full of an absurd amount of clocks, including several with specific alarms alerting her to her meticulous daily routine, which includes cooking herself a frozen dinner and checking all the locks in the house. So, yeah, she’s not doing so great. The clocks make for excellent set dressing — visually and sonically disturbing — but also perfectly symbolize the cyclical nature of the mythology at the heart of this story. Shadyside and Sunnyvale have been locked in an ongoing conflict since the 17th century, specific patterns repeating and holding Shadysiders in a particular chokehold of violence and tragedy.
Deena, desperate to save Sam, who is freshly possessed and tied up so she can’t do any murders, pleads with C. Berman to share anything she knows about Sarah Fier, the curse, and the connection between what happened at Nightwing and what’s happening now. C. Berman, eventually persuaded by the power of teen gay love, relents and tells Deena and Josh the story of the worst day of her life.
We then spend most of the movie on that day in 1978, a sunny, mostly adult-free camp turned upside down by an axe-wielding killer. We’ve already met this killer in 1994, but we get to see him before Sarah Fier flipped his switch. Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye) is just a nice, goofy boy dating Cindy Berman (Emily Rudd), a goody-two-shoes camp counselor who definitely doesn’t believe in the witch’s curse and does believe she’ll escape the darkness of Shadyside one day.
Her foil is her younger sister Ziggy (Sadie Sink), a wild camper who we first meet running through the woods. Her pursuers are a group of campers led by mean girl Sheila (Chiara Aurelia), who proceeds to have Ziggy strung up by her wrists on the very tree where Fier was hung, taking a lighter to Ziggy’s arm. 1978 is a gorefest in all the obvious ways, but it also deeply disturbs with the violence it showcases beyond the actual curse. Sunnyvale girls torture Ziggy just because they can. Another Shadysider reveals her self-harm scars. The curse, with the lines it draws between Sunnyvale and Shadyside, has real, devastating repercussions that play out on a character level.
At Camp Nightwing, Sunnyvale and Shadyside are thrown together, heightening the stakes of the tension between them. Here, you won’t find playful and zany camp pranks but much more upsetting ones, like Sheila scrawling awful words on the walls of Ziggy’s cabin and Ziggy exacting her revenge with a bucket of live bugs and creatures. Amid the late-70s/early-80s slasher aesthetics, there’s an ugliness to Camp Nightwing. Sunnyvale pride looks especially ghastly in the face of Shadyside’s grim reality. To Sunnyvale, the campwide color war is just another way to assert their dominance, but when it’s interrupted by an axe murderer, the true stakes of this rift become clear. Sunnyvale campers and counselors emerge from the camp massacre pretty much unscathed while Shadyside suffers several losses. This movie still avoids being self-serious, but it’s admittedly a little less fun than the first, going all in on the tragic curse that grips Shadysiders and becoming repetitive in the process.
Let’s get the big twist out of the way, because let’s be real, it’s not a very compelling twist at all. The movie goes to great lengths to suggest good girl Cindy is the C. Berman we meet in 1994 when really it’s Ziggy who survives the camp massacre and becomes the haunted woman telling this tale to Deena and Sam. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a play on expectations: The good sister dies and the misbehaved one survives. Ultimately, all it feels like is a cheap narrative trick. And even though part of my enjoyment of the first film was not really affected by its predictability, this unsurprising turn in 1978 doesn’t really do anything.
Tie-ins to the first movie abound, and they’re occasionally fun, such as when the camp’s nurse (Jordana Spiro) turns out to be the mother of razor-happy, sweet-voiced Ruby Lane. Forever haunted by what happened to her daughter, she has made it her life’s work to solve the mystery of Sarah Fier. She comes close, but along the way, she also encounters the stones scrawled with the names of Shadysiders gone psycho and when she sees Tommy Slater’s on it, she tries to kill him before he can kill anyone else.
Nurse Lane gets taken out of the picture pretty quickly, so then it’s Cindy and her crew left to follow her footsteps to Fier. That crew includes her boyfriend Tommy before he snaps, her ex-bestie Alice (Ryan Simpkins), and Alice’s boyfriend Arnie (Sam Brooks). From the moment they initially stumble into the caves beneath camp, we become immersed in the mythology of the witch’s curse. But we don’t really learn any substantial new information, the movie rehashing much of what we already know from the first. A lot of this might be new to the characters, but it isn’t new for us, and the dramatic irony is dull. Cindy and Alice are stuck in the caves together for much of the episode, and they both essentially just repeat various tenets of the mythology to each other over and over.
What’s more interesting is the relationship dynamic between them, which parallels some of the tension between sisters Cindy and Ziggy and girlfriends Deena and Sam in the 1994 timeline. Cindy and Sam are both desperate to shed the Shadyside curse in terms of their own lives, Sam moving to Sunnyvale and Cindy adopting a sort of Sunnyvale drag, donning preppy polo shirts and a sweet-girl-from-the-suburbs persona to mask her inner turmoil. When it comes to Sam, Deena sees this as a betrayal. When it comes to Cindy, Alice feels betrayed, too, and Ziggy feels, well, like her sister is a fool. Cindy and Alice simultaneously work through their interpersonal issues as they work through the mysteries of the cave and the curse. This movie succeeds on a character level in the same ways the first does, giving just enough specificity to these characters to make you care what happens to them. 1978 just feels even more tragic in its rendering of these characters than the first, which gives the movie a different tone that isn’t an altogether misfire but does make it all the more obvious these character conflicts are drawn with broad strokes.
Cindy and Ziggy’s complicated sister dynamic isn’t quite as well developed as Cindy and Alice’s, and as a result, their arc feels forced. Every scene between Cindy and Ziggy feels like the same scene repeated over and over until they finally come together for the final act. Cindy and Alice’s arc has some more resonant beats. And even Ziggy’s romantic arc with a young Nick Goode feels fully realized (by slasher terms). I love that they bond over their mutual love of Stephen King but also decide as the night goes on they’ve lived enough horror and would like to read some Judy Blume wholesomeness. I don’t mind the sometimes clunky, often corny dialogue throughout the movie, but I do feel like some of the emotional stakes of the narrative are belabored, which only overemphasizes how simplistic they are.
I’m not necessarily looking for depth from my slashers, but 1978 almost plays it too straight (pun intended, because it’s also less queer than the first, but shoutout to nonbinary actor Ryan Simpkins, who is one of the best parts of the movie). It perfectly replicates an age-old slasher trope with two of the movie’s minor characters: Kurt (Michael Provost, who you might recognize from Plan B), the cocky jock archetype, and Annie (Eden Campbell), a pretty hippie girl have sex that ends with the girl brutally murdered and the guy spared. Of course, there’s the broader context of the cursed: Annie is a Shadysider and Kurt is from Sunnyvale, so it makes sense one dies while the other survives based on those parameters. But when I saw this girl enjoying sex and then lighting up a joint, I said out loud “oh, she’s clearly gonna die,” and then I was right. This time, that felt less satisfying. While I wrote about the weirdly exciting feeling of watching familiar tropes satisfied in 1994, this time, the satisfaction of this particular trope really does just feel tired. There’s nothing else at play with the sequence, and I almost wish it’d been axed. In general, part of me wonders if a tighter 90-minute edit of 1978 could have solved some of its redundant issues.
As I also wrote last week, I don’t think slashers need to outright surprise to be successful. I don’t think all tropes need to be subverted or include a Commentary. But 1994 still managed to surprise in small ways that kept things feeling fresh and exciting. 1978, while certainly grisly, also plays it safe in some ways. Overall, 1978 is even gorier than 1994. The death scenes involving young campers are shot in a purposeful way that minimizes gratuitousness while still maintaining the macabre.
The grisliness of these murders is also just sort of a matter of weapon choice. Someone using a large axe to chop people up is just always going to look and sound gruesome. And in 1978, it’s yet another thing that starts to feel repetitive to the point of blurring. There isn’t much variation to the more action-packed horror scenes. Again, it just feels repetitive. And sure, every archetypical killer has their MO and weapon of choice, but even the original Friday The 13th threw a bow and arrow into the mix. Ghostface in Scream might prefer a hunting knife, but we also get the very memorable garage door scene. You’ll find no Chekhov’s bread slicer here. I’m all for a paint-by-the-numbers slasher, but again, 1978 just plays it so straight.
The biggest drawback of the film really is that it seems to be re-treading too much ground, especially when it comes to the mythology already explored in the first. We get the new piece of information that Fier’s hand needs to be reunited with the rest of her bones, but that has been easy to piece together since the last movie. The best parts of 1978 are the relationship dynamics — particularly Cindy and Alice’s friendship, which does nicely replicate the tension between Deena and Sam, even if it isn’t explicitly romantic here. And it’s still an enjoyable chapter of the series.
But all that effort put into the Ziggy/Cindy fakeout falls flat. If anything, the most genuinely shocking part of the ending is not the identity reveal so much as the brutality of Cindy and Ziggy’s death and near death. They don’t have the information nor time to deal with the fact they’re being pursued by multiple killers like the teens in 1994 do. So they’re hacked up right next to each other, and even though Ziggy lives, it’s a vicious ending, one that underscores the tragedy of the Berman sisters, who so recently came together before being violently torn apart. Ziggy’s cynicism is correct in the end; there’s no hope for Shadysiders. The bleakness of 1978 is one of its strengths. The curse has so much weight to it.
I do think the odds are stacked against 1978, because the second part of a trilogy so often tends to lag, having to do all the work of setting things up for the ending. The movie feels more like connective tissue between movies than a pulsating heart of its own. It thrills in fits and starts, the momentum constantly cut by its tendency to reiterate.
I have some lingering questions/quasi-theories about both films and where we’re headed for the final installment, so I’m going to drop those here and feel free to weigh in on them or add your own in the comments:
- First: I’m confused about some parts of the mythology! Okay, I know I just complained about the over-explaining of the mythology, but part of my frustration there is that I feel like we just had a lot of things re-explained instead of receiving actual new information. One thing I would like an answer on is how killers are picked. We know their names appear on the stones, and we know all killers are Shadysiders (although, Sam is picked after she defects to Sunnyvale), but is there something else that links all these people together? I kind of jokingly said “maybe they’re all virgins” to my girlfriend.
- On that same note, why did Sam become possessed after basically following the same arc as (bleeding on the bones, pursued by resurrected killers, ) but Ziggy did not? Ultimately, I don’t care TOO much about potential plot holes as long as they aren’t detracting from the narrative, so if there ends up not being a reason for this, I’ll probably let it slide. But do we think there could be an explanation?
- This is not a question so much as an observation, and look, I truly am not a nitpicky person when it comes to certain logistical things in genre work, but I just have to say this because it’s cracking me up: Since Sam and Denna were also surprised by the reveal that C. Berman is Ziggy and not Cindy, are we to believe C. Berman told this entire story to them…in third person?!
- There are two mentions of getting hit by a bus when trying to leave Shadyside made casually in this movie…is someone going to get hit by a bus trying to leave Shadyside?
- I can’t get a good read on Nick’s sudden switch to denying Ziggy’s side of the story after we spend so much of the movie establishing their romantic arc. Is this just a narrative convenience or do we think some of the choices Shadysiders make are not exactly of their own free will but rather the influence of Sarah Fier’s curse? Either way, ugh, I feel like we’re maybe going to be fed a redemptive cop storyline. Part of why I like slashers is that the cops are often useless in them!
- Looking ahead: As we already knew from the title, we’re going back to where it all began in 1666 next week. I’ve loved how each of the movies has its own distinct visual landscape, and I’m looking forward to these The Witch vibes. I also love that the cast from both movies return in new roles for this one, tying back to the cyclical nature of the curse.