NorthNetflix didn’t invent nostalgia, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The streamer certainly went to town with Stranger Things, which sported the 1980s as a badge of honor: BMXs, Dungeons & Dragons, walkie-talkies. In its wake, a host of terrifying tributes to the era appeared, ever-evolving variants seeping through a time-travel portal.
The closest cousin was Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which also mixed Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and John Carpenter to great effect and, in Finn Wolfhard, shared a lead (Stranger Things has the book flowing too. through his veins). Then there was the Summer of 84, 2018, from the Canadian trio of directors RKSS, about four teenagers from Oregon convinced that their neighbor is a serial killer; and Cody Calahan’s 2020 film Vicious Fun, a neon-filled comic horror film set in 1983 about a young film critic who runs into a therapy group for serial killers.
Now Netflix is getting on its own train with Street of fear, a trilogy of films set in different eras, directed by Leigh Janiak and based on the books by RL Stine. The first installation, an entertaining and surprisingly bloody tale about the teenage inhabitants of the suburban town of Shadyside who mysteriously kill each other, is set in 1994, inspired by the slasher movies of the decade like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream. .
All of this is courtesy of misty-eyed filmmakers behind rose-tinted lenses, but darkness lurks in each: rot beneath idyllic suburban facades, itself a throwback to the paranoid titles of the time. “Terror has always been socially conscious and committed,” explains horror historian Dr. Johnny Walker, professor of media at Northumbria University and author of the forthcoming Rewind, Replay: Britain and the Video Boom, 1978-91.
“As a genre, it depends on the impact and, well, the horror. Because of that, and because it is so inherently visceral, it is fertile ground for exploring contentious and divisive issues. “
But why the 80s and 90s and why now? For a time, it was felt that that period was best forgotten, but, says Walker: “The trendsetters who decided the ’80s weren’t cool now are dinosaurs. It’s the kids of the 80s who are now making the decisions. “And there is something more interesting at play, too, he says:” Today has largely been an era of right-wing populist governments globally. And that is consistent with previous iterations. of conservatism, certainly with Thatcher and Reagan. “
One example: Censor, an upcoming horror from Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond about traumatized film censorship. It is set in 1985 in Great Britain, at the height of the hysteria surrounding unsavory videos, many of which were banned. The Britain of the mid-1980s under Thatcher, Walker says, was terrible for many people, and while moral panic was terrible for the horror industry, it created a thriving community of fans of the genre. “Censor plays on that dichotomy, with the bleakness of the 80s but also with the excitement surrounding the panic of unsavory videos for teens sharing pirated videos in the schoolyard.”
This, he says, speaks to why horror is so effective in investigating history, whether it’s Censor or Stranger Things making a meal of conspiracies and cover-ups. “The fundamentals of the genre, the tropes, can be reused,” he says, “because inevitably at different times, there will be governments doing shady things. And with that, dynamic horror can flourish because it has something to sink its teeth into. “
An American poster for Censor plays on its ugly video roots: a pair of gruesome hands grab a faulty TV screen. In that sense, it is marketed with some nostalgia, Walker says, and Censor certainly owes it to the movies Bailey-Bond grew up watching. But he is furious with the weather around them. “Thatcher was very lucky that the nasty video panic happened,” says Walker. “When you put nasty videos on the cover of a newspaper. it is a diversionary tactic. Tell people not to be afraid of impending unemployment but of videotapes. The 80s are often dismissed as consumerism, but Censor takes that superficial appearance and digs deep, scraping the shine off the MTV generation. “
The same could be said for what America was experiencing in the 1990s. Director Kevin Phillips’ 2017 film Super Dark Times is set in upstate New York, 1996. It involves a group of teenagers by bike, but it’s a heartbreaking and haunting piece about a boy who accidentally kills his friend with a samurai sword, and what keeps falling. Set four years before Columbine, it explores a generational malaise, the rise of a more troubled adolescent psyche.
The ’80s and’ 90s are the perfect fodder for contemporary horror, providing nostalgia and a context that speaks perhaps to where we’ve ended up today. They are passionate tributes to the childhood of their directors, but they deal with fractured dreams. Good horror always finds the truth.
Fear Street will be on Netflix July 2; Censor is in theaters from August 20