“Fear Street Part 3: 1666” isn’t just the best of the Netflix horror trilogy; it also recasts the prior two entries, “1994” and “1978,” in a more favorable light by deepening the mythology and underscoring just how crucial it is to watch all three chapters consecutively. Taken on their own, any one of these films loosely based on R.L. Stine’s novels would be an above-average genre throwback. Together, they amount to one of the more involving horror series in recent memory.
Despite their subtitles, the three “Fear Street” movies aren’t truly separated by decades and centuries: Their timelines quite literally bleed into one another. That’s especially true in the trilogy-concluding “1666,” which partially takes place in the year of its title and, in keeping with the series’ witchy mysticism, exclusively features actors from the first two installments playing their 17th-century counterparts. These youths (including “1994’s” Kiana Madeira and “1978’s” Sadie Sink, among many others) feel as though they both are and are not their future selves as they play out the tragic events that set everything in motion. Take for instance the early reveal that Madeira, who also reprises her role as the heroine of “1994” here, finds herself in the body of Sarah Fier — the very witch whose curse is believed to have caused centuries of violence and grief in Shadyside as neighboring Sunnyvale enjoyed peace and prosperity — as she glimpses the past.
“Who among you has welcomed the devil to Union?” a superstitious townsperson asks after discovering that their well has been poisoned, immediately blaming it on devilry. There are books full of occult symbols and children saying “a full moon rises before nightfall” as a kind of secret message to one another, all of which ends as badly for those involved as you’d expect. Once again co-written and directed by Leigh Janiak, who shared script duties with Phil Graziadei and Kate Trefry this time around, “1666” isn’t content with merely suggesting that past is prologue. It instead draws a straight line between the 17th and 20th centuries, showing how one small, evil act can resonate for hundreds of years.
It’s also notable for being the only chapter of this story in which anyone’s parents are present. Not unlike “It Follows,” much of “Fear Street” takes place in near-empty neighborhoods where mothers and fathers are nowhere to be found and the children fighting for their lives have to do so by their lonesome. Janiak repeatedly emphasizes just how desperate her characters’ task is, as well as how brave they are for soldiering on nevertheless.
For as strong a conclusion as this is, the fact that it links to “1994” far, far more than it does to “1978” comes dangerously close to making that middle entry feel superfluous. “1666” is as much a sequel to “1994” as it is a prequel, with “1978” a kind of forgotten middle child that almost could have been relegated to an extended flashback sequence. Even so, part of the fun is that each installment builds on the one before and the interconnected trilogy is more than the sum of its parts, some of which are borrowed from other films.
If “1994” evoked “Scream,” and “1978” was reminiscent of “Friday the 13th,” “1666” feels kin to “The Witch.” To Janiak’s credit, these influences are ultimately little more than thematic signposts. (The allusions have actually grown more obscure as the series progresses: A sequence featuring our heroine navigating a tunnel with a headlamp brings to mind the climax of “Kill List,” Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disturbing sophomore feature.) Lighter on gore than its two predecessors, which overindulged in graphic violence for graphic violence’s sake, “1666” is also the most disturbing of the bunch. A pivotal scene set in a church is among the grimmest in recent memory, so much so that some viewers may be inclined to cover their eyes.
They shouldn’t avert their gaze for too long, as the neon-drenched finale set in the same mall where “Fear Street” began is an aesthetic delight that allows the trilogy to end with as much style as substance. At its most compelling, “1666” grapples with — or at least gestures at — an underexplored aspect of witch hunts: What if being falsely accused is what drives one toward witchcraft in the first place? If you’re already guilty in the court of public opinion, this line of thinking suggests, you’ve got nothing to lose by committing whatever unholy act you’re about to be burned for. Put in other words, some of us don’t choose to live deliciously; the delicious life chooses us.